The history of hemp

Hemp history

As one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world, hemp has played an important role in human history for thousands of years.


The origin of hemp

Hemp originally comes from Central Asia and reached Europe, Africa and America via the Near East. One of the oldest relics is a piece of hemp fabric estimated to be 10,000 years old. The first written records of the use of hemp come from China around 500 BC, reporting mainly on its use for clothing and medicines. The first ropes made of hemp date back to around 2,800 B.C. The oldest hemp paper in the world dates back to around 100 B.C.

Hemp in Europe

Hemp has played a role in Europe for about 2,500 years. In 1390, a printing press opened in Nuremberg and in 1455 Gutenberg printed his famous Bible on hemp paper. Around 1500, Spanish sailors brought hemp to America, where it played an important role for a long time. In addition, the cultivation of hemp was at times ordered by law. In addition, hemp was often a recognised means of payment during the last centuries.

Hemp was indispensable for centuries

Sails and ropes made of hemp enabled Columbus to discover America. Levi Strauss produced the first jeans from the tough and tear-resistant hemp fibres. Hemp oil was popular as a bright lamp oil as well as a lubricating oil. Likewise, many famous artists painted their works on hemp, including Leonardo da Vinci's famous Mona Lisa. In addition, the oldest written constitution of the United States of America still in force was written on hemp paper in 1787.

Until the beginning of the 19th century, hemp played a major role as a particularly efficient plant as food, fibre supplier and basis for medicinal products. Hemp was even so valuable that it was a trigger for wars and during the Second World War even Nazi Germany increasingly cultivated hemp.

Why hemp lost importance

After about 3,000 years of intensive use, there was a sharp decline in hemp cultivation in the mid-19th century, with several factors responsible for this.

On the one hand, mechanical looms simplified the processing of cotton and the progress of wood processing simplified the production of paper from wood. In addition, the demand for hemp sails and ropes declined due to the displacement of sailing ships by steamboats. The final collapse and a worldwide ban was finally brought about by a campaign by the oil, paper, pharmaceutical and cotton industries in the USA. Both the US government and the media equated hemp as a drug with cocaine and heroin. Subsequently, hemp was gradually banned all over the world. Austria finally decided to ban the hemp plant in 1963.

Since the 1990s, the image of the hemp plant has been recovering, mainly due to EU legislation that provides for the legal cultivation of commercial hemp from the EU catalogue of varieties under certain conditions. In the USA, too, hemp is currently being gradually legalised again. Hemp farmers in US states such as Colorado and California are even cultivating hemp without any legal restrictions at all.



Jack Herer, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, 1996