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Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany
Robert Voeksa
a Department of Geography, California State University, Fullerton, CA.
Published online: 14 May 2014.
To cite this article: Robert Voeks (2014) Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany, The AAG Review of Books, 2:2, 54-56, DOI:
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Robert C. Clarke and Mark D.
Merlin. Berkeley, CA: Univer-
sity of California Press, 2013.
xv and 452 pp., maps, timeline,
and index. $95.00 cloth (ISBN
Reviewed by Robert Voeks, De-
partment of Geography, Califor-
nia State University, Fullerton,
The end of the war on weed is in sight.
The United States seems to have reached a tipping point
regarding marijuana policy, and the majority of Ameri-
cans support decriminalization. State after state is opting
to legalize marijuana use either for medical or recreation-
al purposes, and even the federal government seems to be
softening its stance. But bad ideas die hard, and the ill-
conceived war on marijuana drags on in many parts of the
country. And so it is propitious that Robert C. Clarke and
Mark D. Merlin have produced a comprehensive, highly
interdisciplinary volume on the evolution and ethnobot-
any of Cannabis—the “devil’s weed.”
The authors are uniquely qualified to explore these topics.
Both began independently investigating the history and
cultivation of Cannabis as undergraduates in the 1960s
and 1970s. Clarke (1981) wrote his senior biology thesis
on the subject, later published as Marijuana Botany: The
Propagation and Breeding of Distinctive Cannabis, and Mer-
lin (1972) wrote his geography master’s thesis on the his-
tory and geographical origins of Cannabi s, later published
as Man and Marijuana: Some Aspects of Their Ancient
Relationships. Although they communicated over the sub-
sequent years, Clarke and Merlin met for the first time at
the 1996 Society for Economic Botany Meeting. There
the idea of this book was hatched, and after seventeen
years, this self-described “labor of love”
has arrived.
The central objective of the book is to
explore the long-term evolutionary re-
lationship between humans and Can-
na bis. This is not a small task, given
the profound history of our interaction
with the species and the tremendous
amount of written attention it has re-
ceived. The book is divided into thir-
teen chapters, and these are roughly
separated among three general top-
ics—biology, ecology and origins; cul-
tural diffusion and historical uses; and
taxonomy, breeding, and evolution.
Chapter 3, which includes a discussion of early people–
Cannabis relations, will interest students of agricultural
origins. As a sun-loving disturbance species (or possibly
up to three species—Cannabis sativa, C. indica, and C.
ruderalis), Cannabis would have occurred in abundance
around the temporary clearings of central Asian hunter-
gatherers. Few species of plants on earth have a broader
range of uses than Cann a bis, and it would not have taken
foragers long to discover one or more of its properties. But
which would have attracted them first—food, fiber, or
psychoactive resin? In a 1968 letter to Merlin, Carl Sauer
wondered what first drew early people to the ubiquitous
weed: “Did Homo religiousus precede Homo economicus?
(p. 30). It is indeed intriguing to think that the first uses
were for spiritual reasons, as early humans wrestled with
the great questions. Clarke and Merlin suggest that it was
likely the nutritious seeds (achenes) of Cannabis that first
attracted their attention. Not only tasty, Cannabis seeds
are rich in protein, and “remarkably” high in omega-3 and
omega-6 fatty acids, both critical to human metabolism.
Consumption of sufficient sticky seeds, however, would
have revealed the much appreciated psychoactive dimen-
sions of the plant, and so the discovery of food for the
body and soul were likely coeval. Fiber usage, which for
centuries would come to dominate the value of Canna bis,
Cannabis: Evolution
and Ethnobotany
The AAG Review of Books 2(2) 2014, pp. 54–56. doi: 10.1080/2325548X.2014.901859.
©2014 by Association of American Geographers. Published by Taylor & Francis, LLC.
Downloaded by [] at 23:34 26 August 2015
SPRING 2014 55
was likely identified at a later date. In any case, given its
myriad material and spiritual uses, including the abil-
ity to let people communicate with their gods, the seeds
of cannabis were carried by migrating hunter-gatherers,
purposely or inadvertently, as part of their “transported
entourage.” And so began the long coevolution of people
and Cannabis.
Chapter 4 provides a thorough exploration of Cannabis
diffusion from its probable origin in central Asia to nearly
all points of the geographical compass. The authors mar-
shal evidence from numerous lines of inquiry—microfos-
sil, macrofossil, chemistry, and linguistics, as well as a
wide array of primary and secondary sources—to trace
the plant’s global trajectory. In addition to interpreting
the results of published Cannabis research, the authors
explain point by point the strengths and weaknesses of
the methods employed. Before outlining fossil pollen evi-
dence, for instance, they take pains to review the chal-
lenging issue of identification. It is nearly impossible to
distinguish hemp (Cannabis) from hop (Humulus) pollen,
which are in the same family (Cannabaceae), and the sit-
uation is compounded because hops and hemp were often
grown side by side. Macrofossil evidence, especially seeds
and fiber, is less problematic. The earliest Cannabis seeds
date from 10,000 BP in Japan, and fiber is first reported at
27,000 BP from the Czech Republic. We cannot be sure
that Cannabis was being used by humans at these and
the hundreds of other sites reported throughout Eurasia.
The species thrives in disturbed habitats, and some fos-
sil evidence could well reflect weedy populations encour-
aged by human presence, but not necessarily exploited to
a significant degree. Later evidence of intense Cannabis
exploitation, however, strongly suggests that wherever the
species occurred, people had learned to use it.
Decriminalization proponents will want to examine
Chapters 7 and 8, which provide exhaustive reviews of
where and when Cannabis was first exploited for psychoac-
tive and medicinal purposes. Its usage is recorded as early
as written records appear. In the ancient Hindu Vedas,
the “Atharvaveda,” Cannabis (bhangas) is referred to as
the “sacred grass.” An ancient mystical sutra reports that
Siddhartha (later to become the Buddha) survived for six
years prior to his enlightenment on nothing by a single
Cannabis seed per day. In India, perhaps as early as 3600
BP, Cannabis was considered a panacea for a range of ail-
ments, from fevers and excess phlegm to swollen testicles.
It aroused the appetite and promoted happiness; Canna-
bis was truly “the penicillin of Ayurvedic medicine” (p.
245). In China’s oldest medical text, the Shen Nung Pen
Ts’ao Ching (perhaps 4900 BP), Cannabis was classified as
a “first class” medicine, on par with ginseng. Eating its
resinous seeds was encouraged to communicate with the
spirits, although too much consumption could lead to vi-
sions of demons. In Egypt’s Ebers Papyrus (3600 BP), Can-
nabis was reportedly ground into honey and introduced
into the vagina to induce contractions during childbirth.
In the fourth century BCE, Greeks served hemp and
honey snack cakes (kannabides) at their all-male sympo-
sia. Galen informs us that the psychoactive cakes left the
attendees “feeling warm and elated” (p. 207). One of the
best and earliest archaeobotanical lines of evidence for
psychoactive usage is from the 2700 BP Yanghai Tomb, in
Xinjiang Province, China. One of the graves contained
the remains of a male shaman, and in a wooden bowl
placed close to the body, there were nearly one kilogram
of female inflorescences. Because the flowers are useful for
neither food nor fiber, it is reasonable to assume that Can-
nabis was being employed for its psychoactive properties
at this very early date, either as medicine or for divina-
tion. These inflorescences were later shown to contain
tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive
compound in the plant. Although the use of a drug plant
to treat one or more ailments, even for many centuries,
is no proof of effectiveness—guiacum (Guaiacum offici-
nale) and syphilis come to mind—the deep history and
geographical extent of medicinal applications of Cannabis
over such a large area are highly suggestive of the validity
of its medical claims. In ethnopharmacological research,
where there’s this much smoke, there’s usually some fire.
My favorite chapters, Chapters 5 and 9, explore the every-
day and ritual uses of Cannabis fiber. Made up of phloem
from the plant’s cortex, hemp fiber has a history of use for
cordage and clothing dating back at least 5,000 to 6,000
years in China. The range of uses and the cultural sig-
nificance attributed to Cannabis fiber is striking. Ancient
Chinese oceangoing ships employed hemp sails and rig-
ging and anchor ropes, and the military armed themselves
with hemp string crossbows. Early hemp paper recorded
the daily lives of people, hemp fabric was the mourning
“textile of the masses” (p. 145), and hemp shrouds covered
the deceased on their journey into the afterlife. Fast for-
ward a few thousand years, and hemp fabric had become
deeply woven into the cultural fabric of Asia, Europe,
and the Americas. In Europe and North America from
the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the cordage of
choice for public hangings and lynch mobs was hempen
rope. Vigilante groups in North America, also known as
“hemp committees,” sent the condemned to the gallows
where they succumbed to “hemp fever” (p. 292). In Japan,
worshippers at Shint shrines to this day pull hemp fiber
suzunawa ropes to ring in blessings of good fortune, and
Downloaded by [] at 23:34 26 August 2015
sumo wrestling yokozunas wear a huge hemp tsuna rope
around their waist in prebout ceremonies to purify the
ring and exorcise evil spirits. The world would have been
a poorer place without the presence of hemp string and
Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany is comprehensive
and thoughtful. At more than 350,000 words, there are
few relevant topics that are not exhaustively explored.
The authors could have trimmed the overall length by
avoiding occasional repetition and by refraining from
lengthy explanatory diversions. For instance, a number
of pages are devoted to explaining Vavilov’s thoughts on
crop origins, and outlining Pleistocene climate change.
By contextualizing their material and carefully defining
jargon and concepts, however, Clarke and Merlin have
crafted a volume in which each chapter can easily stand
alone and will be accessible to a wide range of readers.
Geographers will appreciate the numerous small-scale
color maps used to illustrate archaeobotanical sites as well
as intercontinental Cannabis dispersal corridors, and the
book is lavishly illustrated with dozens of color photo-
graphs and historical prints.
The authors refrained from exploring the current politi-
cal and socioeconomic dimensions of Cannabis use, or
explicitly stating their own views on these topics. Their
objective was to sketch the history and science behind
an amazingly useful plant species, and to let readers draw
their own conclusions. But few will miss the larger point
that Cannabis has played a crucial role in human histo-
ry and cultural evolution, and that the ongoing war on
weed will eventually been seen as a tragic aberration in a
10,000-year-long people–plant relationship.
Clarke, R. C. 1981. Marijuana botany: An advanced study:
The propagation and breeding of distinctive Cannabis.
Berkeley, CA: Ronin Publishing.
Merlin, M. D. 1972. Man and marijuana: Some aspects
of their ancient relationships. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh
Dickinson University Press.
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... The studies targeting the center of origin, history of domestication, and routes of cultivation have suggested Central Asia as one of the likely centers of origin [6,7]. The following distribution pattern is cited to be challenging due to frequent glacial interruptions and extensive human led re-introduction to all inhabited continents [7,8]. Introduction to China and the Indian subcontinent is the accepted as possibly the oldest large scale cultivation efforts after domestication [7]. ...
... Cannabis flowers are a fundamental raw material for the manufacture of the most diverse extracts known today. Several compounds formed in the secondary metabolism of cannabis have pharmacological properties of evident interest, notably the cannabinoids, especially tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), which, when converted into their neutral forms, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), have paradoxical pharmacological effects on central nervous system (CNS) 8 . THC is psychoactive with euphoria properties, besides having antiemetic and analgesic effects, while CBD is depressant, with anticonvulsant and anxiolytic properties, with antipsychotic and anti-inflammatory effects 9 . ...
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Applied research results on Diversified crops including Hemp, Quinoa, fababeans and traditional crops with a value added aspect.
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For centuries the subject of hemp (Cannabis sativa) has been shrouded in myth and misconceptions, varying from absurd adulation to zealous condemnation. In the last few years the remarkable swell of interest in and use of the plant has been reflected in a rash of topical books about it. Very little has been done, however, to describe the long and worldwide history of man's use of hemp--not only as a euphoric, but as a fiber, an oil, and a medicine--and it is to this neglected aspect that Mr. Merlin devotes his study. The book opens with a look at the botanical aspects of the hemp plant, including a short discussion of its place in the ecology and the natural factors contributing to its geographical dispersal. Mr. Merlin then suggests some historical bases for the use of marijuana in various traditional societies, and concludes by tracing the cultural diffusion of hemp throughout many European and Asian communities. This well-researched and concise study is a welcome needed addition to the growing literature on a controversial subject.
Marijuana botany: An advanced study: The propagation and breeding of distinctive Cannabis
  • R C Clarke
Clarke, R. C. 1981. Marijuana botany: An advanced study: The propagation and breeding of distinctive Cannabis. Berkeley, CA: Ronin Publishing.