Ancient East Africa: Cannabis Culture Through the Ages

By Seshata

Ancient East Africa: Cannabis Culture Through the Ages

Due to its convenient location across the Indian Ocean from the Indian subcontinent, East Africa was introduced to the benefits of cannabis at a relatively early date compared with elsewhere in Africa. India has utilized cannabis for thousands of years, and Arab and Indian traders have been actively travelling throughout the accessible regions of the world for almost as long.

When Did Cannabis Arrive in East Africa?

Empirical evidence for the arrival of cannabis in East Africa is unknown at present, but it is known that significant exchanges of crops between East Africa and Asia have been occurring since at least 2,000 BCE. 

It is thought that around 2,000 BCE a large­scale transfer of African crops to Asia began to occur. While the majority of the traffic was in a west­to­east direction, some crops may have made the return journey from Asia back to Africa. Then, sometime after 1,000 BCE, it is thought that a large number of Asian species were transferred to the coastlines and islands of southern East Africa. At this time, cannabis was certainly in use throughout much of India, and it is more than possible that it was brought to East Africa by Indian maritime peoples along with other important food, fiber and medicine crops. 

However, several historians argue that its introduction was likely to have been later, either by Hindu, Arab or Portuguese traders, who are well­known to have extensively traded Indian goods along the East African coastline since the 8th, 11th, and 15th centuries CE, respectively. In any case, there is abundant evidence, both linguistic and archaeological, that cannabis was in widespread use by the indigenous peoples of East Africa by the 15th century CE.

Cannabis Culture in Ancient East Africa

By the time the first European explorers and traders began to venture to the southeastern reaches of the African continent, cannabis use was well­established among many indigenous tribes of the region. From contemporary accounts, we have abundant first­-hand evidence of the extent to which cannabis featured in the lives of some of these tribes. 

In 1609, the Portuguese Dominican missionary João dos Santos recorded in his book Ethiopia Oriental that cannabis was grown in the region of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, and in 1652, Dutch colonist Jan van Riebeeck noted that the “Hottentot” (Khoikhoi) tribespeople of the region used cannabis and experienced opium­like effects as a result. 

In what is now Tanzania in 1883, it is reported that cannabis use was “greatly on the increase” among the Nyamwezi tribe that occupies the west­central part of the country. The Sandawe tribe of central Tanzania were observed in 1924 to grow tobacco and “a plant with the same effect as the 'dagga' of South Africa,” and to make extensive use of the water­pipe that is so common to southern and eastern Africa. 

It is also reported that Basoga tribe in present­day Uganda were “addicted to smoking Indian hemp,” which made them “stupid and often stubborn.” Among the Bagishu tribe of eastern Uganda, there was apparently the belief that smoking cannabis could harm a developing fetus. It is recorded that "a man will even forbid his wife to smoke it on account of some evil effect it is said to have upon her or her child, should she be about to become a mother." However, children were free to use it if they chose, as individuality and freedom of choice were highly respected in their culture.

Archaeological Evidence of Cannabis in East Africa

The 2005 book Antiquity of the smoking habit in Africa: human behaviour and culture by Nikolaas van der Merwe states that in Africa, “The smoking habit long preceded the arrival of tobacco. Various materials were smoked, of which cannabis was the most common.” He lists several archaeological finds, including a bone cylinder in Botswana (ca. 750 CE, suggested to be a pipe), fired­clay pipes in Zambia (ca.1200 CE) and fired­clay water pipes in Ethiopia (ca. 1400 CE), which contained cannabis residue. 

Cannabis as Medicine in Ancient East Africa

It appears that cannabis has been extensively used as a medicine by the indigenous tribes of East Africa for many centuries; it is suggested that knowledge of its potential medicinal benefits was likely to have been conferred by Indian or Arab traders, given the long history of cannabis as a medicine within these two cultures. Furthermore, many of the complaints considered to be treatable by cannabis by East Africans correspond to illnesses listed in the great Sanskrit and Arabic texts that discuss medical cannabis. For example, cannabis was apparently used in East Africa to treat asthma, snakebite, malaria, dysentery and even anthrax, as well as to ease the pain of childbirth. In Indian texts, cannabis is recorded as being useful in treating asthma, pain of childbirth, bowel complaints, dysentery and malaria, among many more.

Seshata is a full-time cannabis journalist and researcher currently based in Italy. Find Seshata over at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+ or her own personal site

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