Complete History of Hemp: Ancient Origins to Modern Innovations

Hemp is a plant that has proven its resilience throughout its history. The plant has been a vital human resource for thousands of years. Its rich and varied story spans continents and cultures from ancient civilisations to today. Hemp has been used for everything from textiles and paper to food and medicine, and its modern applications continue to expand. This article reviews the history of hemp, tracing its journey from ancient times to contemporary uses, plus forward-looking applications.

Ancient History of Hemp


The origins of hemp (Cannabis sativa) can be traced back to ancient China, where it was cultivated as early as 2800 BCE. Emperor Shen Nong, the father of Chinese agriculture, documented the use of hemp for medicinal purposes in his pharmacopeia. Hemp made various products, including textiles, ropes, and paper. The ancient Chinese also utilised hemp seeds for their nutritional value.

Ancient India

Hemp, known as “Bhang” in Sanskrit, has been a vital component of Ayurvedic medicine in India for centuries. Its multifaceted applications have made it integral in alleviating various health conditions, including pain relief and gastrointestinal ailments. Beyond its medicinal properties, hemp holds great cultural significance in India and has been intricately entwined with religious rituals and customs.

Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians were remarkably advanced in their knowledge of agriculture and medical practices. Evidence found in the tombs of Pharaohs indicates that they used hemp fibres to create textiles, showcasing their mastery of material production. In addition, there is speculation among experts that hemp oil might have been used in the mummification process for its preservative properties, which aided in the preservation of the bodies, contributing to their remarkable state of intactness.

Persian Empire and the Middle East

Hemp spread to Persia (modern-day Iran) and the Middle East, where it was used for similar purposes in China and India. The Scythians, an ancient nomadic people, were known to use hemp in their daily lives. They made clothing and ropes and used hemp seeds as a food source.

Hemp’s History in Europe

Ancient Greece and Rome

Hemp has a long history in Europe, dating back to around 1000 BCE when the Scythians introduced it. The ancient Greeks and Romans found many uses for hemp. The Greek historian Herodotus documented the Scythians’ use of hemp for clothing and ceremonial purposes. In contrast, the Romans used hemp to produce strong ropes and sails for their ships, supporting their maritime dominance.

Medieval Europe

During the medieval period, hemp cultivation spread throughout Europe. Hemp was a crucial crop for producing textiles and ropes, essential for the burgeoning maritime trade. Monasteries were often centres of hemp cultivation, as monks used hemp to make parchment for writing manuscripts.

Renaissance Period

The Renaissance and Enlightenment periods saw continued use of hemp in Europe. Hemp paper became increasingly important, as it was used for printing books and documents. Notably, the Gutenberg Bible, one of the first books printed using movable type, was printed on hemp paper.

Hemp in America

Early Colonisation

Hemp arrived in the Americas with the early European colonists. The English brought hemp to Jamestown, Virginia, in the early 1600s, where it was cultivated as a vital crop for producing ropes, sails, and clothing. Laws were enacted requiring farmers to grow hemp, underscoring its importance.

Founding of United States

The formation of the United States by its earliest leaders was a period where hemp had substantial interest. Many of the first founders of the US had an interest in the plant for its helpful, varied and adaptable applications. George Washington, for instance, grew hemp for personal use at his home, while Thomas Jefferson advocated for the plant’s commercial applications. He pushed for hemp crops to become more adopted in early US history. It’s believed that the first versions of the American Declaration of Independence and even the Constitution were written on paper crafted from hemp.

Stigmatisation of Hemp

Cotton and Synthetic Fibre Competition

The decline of hemp cultivation began in the 19th century with the advent of the cotton gin, which made cotton processing more efficient and cost-effective. Additionally, the development of synthetic fibres in the early 20th century further reduced the demand for hemp textiles.

Cannabis Prohibition

The prohibition of cannabis surged in the early 20th century, significantly affecting the cultivation of hemp. This impact was particularly evident in the United States, where all variants of cannabis, including hemp, became effectively outlawed following the implementation of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. A complex interplay of political and economic forces shaped the passing of this legislation. Notably, lobbying efforts from the burgeoning synthetic fibre industry played a pivotal role in influencing the enactment of the Marijuana Tax Act.

Hemp’s Modern Revival and Innovation

Renewed Interest

The 1960s and 1970s marked the beginning of a hemp revival driven by the counterculture movement and increasing interest in natural products. However, significant strides were made in hemp legalisation and cultivation in the 1990s and 2000s.

Industrial Hemp Agriculture

In the past few years, there has been an increase in hemp farming worldwide, propelled by the legalisation of cannabis in different regions and states. The Farm Bill was passed by the United States in 2018, allowing for the growth of industrial hemp, leading to considerable advancements and exploration in the hemp sector.

Modern Applications

Today, hemp is used in various applications, from textiles and construction materials to food and wellness products. Some of the modern uses of hemp include:

  1. Fabric: Hemp fibres are exceptionally durable and versatile, making them an excellent choice for eco-friendly clothing and accessories. Clothing made from hemp is not only long-lasting but also sustainable.
  2. Paper: Hemp paper is a highly sustainable alternative to traditional wood-based paper. Its production process requires significantly fewer chemicals and less water, making it an environmentally friendly choice. Additionally, hemp paper is known for its durability and high-quality feel, making it an excellent option for various paper products.
  3. Building Materials: Hempcrete is a sustainable composite of concrete infused with hemp to increase tensile strength significantly. The fibres provide a weave-like fabric in the concrete that acts as a reinforcement structure. In the construction industry, hempcrete is well known for its excellent insulation properties, moisture regulation, and overall robustness.
  4. Nutrition: Hemp seeds and oil are rich in essential fatty acids, proteins, and other nutrients, making them popular in health foods.
  5. CBD Products: CBD is now diffused in various mediums for consumption. It’s used now for retail consumables like tinctures, topicals, capsules, and edibles and is believed to promote relaxation, lower anxiety, and soothe inflammation.
  6. Bioplastics: Hemp can produce biodegradable plastics, offering a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based plastics.

Future of Hemp

Sustainability and Innovation

Hemp is a promising crop for the future owing to its remarkable versatility and sustainability. As the world grapples with escalating worries about climate change and environmental deterioration, hemp’s minimal ecological footprint and wide-ranging applications position it as a critical contributor to the transition to a more sustainable economy. The Australian Government, for instance, has published research on Industrial Hemp as a possible avenue for accelerating carbon sequestration. The plant is more effective at removing carbon from the atmosphere (to slow global warming) than any other plant crop or natural forest.

Regulatory Developments

Legal and regulatory developments will also shape hemp’s future. Continued legalisation and establishment of clear regulatory frameworks will be crucial for the industry’s growth. Countries worldwide recognise hemp’s potential and are moving towards more progressive policies. The topic of legalisation is increasingly attracting the interest of policymakers in places like Australia, where policy is being explored to legalise hemp fully.

Research and Development

Advancements in ongoing research and development will continue to unveil many new applications and benefits of hemp. Breakthroughs in biotechnology, agriculture, and material science are anticipated to expand the uses of hemp and improve the efficiency of its cultivation and processing.


Historically, hemp’s enduring value and versatility have been evident from ancient civilisations to modern advancements. Hemp has always played a vital role in human history. Looking ahead, it holds the promise of sustainable development and ongoing innovation. The increasing cultivation of hemp and its expanding range of applications indicate that it will continue to be a crucial resource for future generations.

In Australia and numerous other regions around the globe, there is a growing recognition of hemp’s powerful advantages both commercially, environmentally and medicinally. With ongoing research, supportive legislation, and increasing public interest, the future of hemp seems promising. The story of hemp is far from complete, and its next chapter is poised to be one of the most thrilling yet.


  1. Ask IFAS – Powered by EDIS. (n.d.). SS-AGR-457/AG458: Industrial Hemp in the United States: Definition and History. [online] Available at:
  2. CANNANASKIS. (2020). Scythian — The History of Cannabis. [online] Available at:
  3. (n.d.). The cultivation and use of hemp in ancient China. [online] Available at:
  4. Greenlife Organics. (n.d.). Why was Hemp Outlawed in the United States? [online] Available at:
  5. Yonavjak, L. (n.d.). Industrial Hemp: A Win-Win For The Economy And The Environment. [online] Forbes. Available at:
  6. The Role of Industrial Hemp in Carbon Farming. (n.d.). Available at:


Steve Jacobs Author Headshot

Originally from Byron Bay (Australia), Steve Jacobs is a writer and expert on the world of hemp. His passion for hemp products developed from working with organic hemp cultivators and sustainable skincare brands in Byron. Inspired by these eco-friendly approaches to crafting superb products, Steve realised the opportunity at the intersection of aromatherapy, natural skincare and the magic of hemp. He founded Bondi Hemp to bring this dream to life, bringing rejuvenating hemp extracts, refreshing botanical hemp topicals and revitalising essential oils to everyday Aussies. True to his Byron roots, Steve infuses every drop of his responsibly produced hemp products with the rich terroir of the Byron Region, resulting in unsurpassed quality without harming the earth. Today, Steve continues to write and speak about hemp, skincare, and aromatherapy from his family’s home in Northern NSW.