We all remember our first toke, and how that moment changed us for the rest of our lives. But what of the earliest smokers of cannabis? Imagine the effects the sweet vapors of this herb have had on us as a species!
Likely, the earliest inhalers of cannabis smoke did so by accident. Perhaps when throwing it on their campfire they found the fragrance pleasing to the nose, and then discovered its effects on the mind.
The earliest physical evidence of burning cannabis, according to Oxford archeologist Andrew Sherrat, dates back to at least 5,000 years ago. Sherrat points to archaeological finds at a gravesite of a group known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans, also called the Kurgans, who occupied what is now Romania.
The discovery at this site of a “smoking cup” which contained remnants of charred hemp seeds shows that 3,000 years before Christ, humanity had already been using cannabis for religious purposes. From remnants of the charred hemp seeds, we discover that the combustible (and psychoactive) parts of the plant ? namely flowers and leaves ? had been consumed and the hard shell-like residue of the seeds was left behind.
Sherrat also points to even older ceramic tripod bowls believed to have been used as burners for cannabis incense, due to the use of hemp cords to place impressions upon them.
Likewise in ancient Mesopotamia, largely regarded as the birthplace of civilized culture, cannabis incense was burned because “its aroma was pleasing to the Gods.” Recipes for cannabis incense, regarded as copies of much older versions, were found in the cuneiform library of the legendary Assyrian king Assurbanipal. Records from the time of his father, Esarhaddon, record “cannabis,” under the name “qunubu,” as one of the main ingredients of the “sacred rites.”
Incense tents like those used by Esarhaddon were part of the ancient world’s standard paraphernalia. The use of cannabis and these incense tents was spread throughout the ancient world by the Scythians (CC#02, High plains drifters).
The Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the 5th Century BC about how the ancient Scythians would enter tents and throw cannabis seeds on hot stones, and then howl with pleasure at the effect they received. This event was largely thought to be mythical, until Russian archeologists began to discover ancient Scythian gravesites which contained cauldrons, which held heated stones onto which flowering cannabis tops were thrown.
These sites, generally dedicated to chieftains, but sometimes also to high-ranking females, also contained the makings of small tents, similar to the Indian tee-pee in design, which were placed over the cauldrons in order to hold the vapors from the plant. An ornately decorated bag containing cannabis was also recovered from one of these Scythian burial sites.
From tobacco to pot
Although remarkable for their ingenuity, there is no evidence that ancient man made the leap from incense holder to pipe, and the pipe is generally believed to be a New World discovery. According to most sources, pipes were virtually unheard of in the ancient world, (Europe, Asia, Africa), until western man had reached the New World.
One of the things that shocked Columbus and other early explorers was the widespread habit of smoking tobacco. The Indians had been accustomed to smoking tobacco, and other herbs, in a variety of pipes and even primitive predecessors of the modern cigar. (The tobacco they smoked was a much stronger and more psychoactive variety than today’s chemical cancer sticks!)
Europeans quickly adopted the tobacco habit, as well as its means of ingestion. The spread of the two to Europe, Africa and Asia, was remarkably quick. Even quicker was the adoption of the pipe for the consumption of products that until then had apparently only been consumed as in both edible and drinkable preparations, such as cannabis.
As was noted over 70 years ago by Laufer and his associates in Tobacco and its Use in Africa, “There is no historical evidence for the opinion that hemp-smoking preceded tobacco-smoking. Neither for ancient India where the use of hemp as a narcotic originated, nor for the Islamic world do we have a single account of hemp-smoking in times anterior to the introduction of tobacco. It is quite certain that the smoking of hemp from a pipe came into vogue only as an imitation of tobacco pipe-smoking, while in earlier times hemp preparations were merely taken internally, either in the form of pills or liquids.”
Ancient African pipes
Although there is no known written record of pipe smoking prior to the arrival of both tobacco and the pipes it was smoked in, there are numerous references to edible and drinkable preparations of cannabis and hashish. This has been seen as proof that smoking is a relatively new introduction, and ganja smoking the by-product of a well established and widespread cultural tobacco-smoking habit.
Yet there is some evidence that points in the other direction. In Africa, for instance, as noted by E Baard in part seven of Dagga Stone Pipes in the Collection of the National Museum: Researches of the National Museum Volume Two? “it is evident that the [African] bushmen were addicted to smoking and used their dagga pipes generations before they came in contact with other races which also used similar pipes.”
In this respect, archaeological evidence also seems to contradict the written record. In Cannabis Smoking in 13-14th Century Ethiopia: Chemical Evidence, Professor Nickolaas J van der Merwe points to two ceramic pipe bowls which were excavated by archeologists in the Begedemer Province of Ethiopia in 1971. The pipes “tested positive for the presence of cannabinolic compounds…” with an associated radiocarbon date of 1320 to 1380 AD. This date is clearly earlier than the introduction of tobacco to Africa following Columbus’ journey.
“Archaeological remains… [from the site]differ but little from the present-day material culture of the region, and the workmen at the site were able to identify the pipe bowls and their mechanical operation. Both bowls formed the part of waterpipes; an aperture at the bottom of the bowl allows for the attachment of a vertical stem, which presumably descended into a water container.”
One of the pipes, identified as an Arwaja’s pipe, or the pipe of a “Big Man,” had a pipe-cake of resin as thick as 1 mm in places.
Interestingly, the water-pipe “is usually associated with hemp-smoking in Africa… the pipe is the same in all parts of the continent, though there is great variety of form, and much ingenuity is shown in adapting local materials such as horns, earthenware, gourds, and bamboo for the construction.”
According to Tobacco and its Use in Africa, “The water-pipe has been reported in Abyssinia. It is often found in East Africa from Lake Victoria to Zanzibar. Zulus of South Africa are addicted to its use. In recent years the smoking of hemp in water-pipes has been reported from the southern Congo, Angola, and as far west as Liberia.”
There may be more controversy in this matter, as the clay Islamic pipes, which I purchased from dealers in ancient coins and other artifacts, were found at a stratospheric location that would also seem to predate the accepted introduction of the pipe into the Middle East.
One ceramic pipe I obtained from Tunisia has been dated to 14th to 15th century, while other ceramic examples from the 12th to 16th century, with the wood one being from the 13th to 16th century. When I queried the dealers as to what would have been smoked in these pipes, the reply was hashish. When I mentioned that some of the dates predated the generally accepted introduction of the pipes into the Middle East, the response was that there were numerous examples of ceramic pipes going back to at least 1,000 AD!
Unfortunately, the pipes are clay, which cannot be carbon dated. So the issue of their precise age, and the questions they raise about the introduction of the pipe into the Middle East, is pure speculation at this point.
These pipes are the obvious predecessors of the modern kif pipe, although the stems were much longer, sometimes three feet or more. Kif pipes consist of a stem, or “sebsi,” sometimes in two parts for easier cleaning. They generally have ceramic bowls, which have a little clay overlap in the tube into the bowl, or “chqaf,” to act as a sort of screen. Fancier bowls are sometimes made of bronze, such as these ones which date back to medieval times.
That such pipes could have been invented independently in the Middle East doesn’t seem to be too far-fetched or too extreme of a technological advancement for the people in question. Possibly, prior to the addition of the bowl, a hollow reed could have been used to inhale the fumes of cannabis resins off a hot coal. The addition of a bowl to hold the burning embers and to act as a wind guard would be the next logical step, and we all know about the creative potential unleashed by this herb.
In his 1991 book, The Great American Hemp Industry, Jack Frazier points to ancient relics which had bowls placed over sculpted hands with hollow tubes, found in the Middle East which may in fact have served as pipe bowls, or at least instruments used for the distribution of incense. Frazier quotes Biblical Archaeology author C Ernest Wright on these items: “…numerous bowls with hands carved on their backs [the bowls thus being the palm of the hand]have been found in Palestine and Syria dating between about 1000 and 600 BC. A hollow tube opens into the bowls, which raises the question as to their purpose.”
The use of cannabis and its potent resins, hashish, is well established in the Middle East. The beauty of these pipes, and depictions of them which exist in art, show the high regard these proud people held for this sacred smoke. It should also be noted that the Arab people are generally credited with introducing cannabis into Africa, along with the technique of smoking, where its popularity soon spread around much of the continent.
“The custom of smoking hemp, either alone or blended with tobacco, is widely diffused over Africa… Hemp was introduced into East Africa from India through the medium of the Arabs… and from the Arabs the Negroes learned the narcotic properties of hemp.”
Joao dos Santos, in Ethiopia Oriental, testifies that hemp was cultivated throughout Cafaria and that the Kafirs called it by its Indian name, “bangue” (bangh). The most interesting point in this early Portuguese account is that in the 16th century the Kafirs only ate the hemp leaves, but did not smoke them as they do at present: they could subsist merely on this leaf for several days without eating anything else… It should also be added that hemp is used in Africa solely as a narcotic, nowhere as a fiber plant.
African pipes take on a number of interesting forms, such as pipes and water pipes made from gourds, bamboo, horns and other items. According to James Walton, in his 1953 book, The Dagga Pipes of Southern Africa, “Normally dagga was smoked communally, the pipe passing from one of the other, and its sole function was a source of pleasure. However, it was also smoked before a dangerous hunt or by warriors before a battle, and among the Swazi each military regiment had its own distinctive pattern of pipe bowl.”
Another interesting technique is the so-called earth pipe. I will quote extensively from Laufer in Tobacco and its Use in Africa, who describes the use and construction of these devices.
“This method, which is sometimes described as ‘earth-smoking,’ has the advantage of ease and simplicity. The smoker needs no apparatus, and while enjoying his weed, he is able to lie at full length on the ground…
“Examples of earth-pipes from the vicinity of… the Zambezi show that the bowl was formed by scraping together a moistened red earth to form a mound three inches in diameter and one inch high. The under-surface is flat because of its attachment to the ground, and the upper surface is convex. A duct representing the stem of a pipe was formed by withdrawing a hollow grass stem which had been embedded in a wet mass of clay surrounding the bowl.
“The pipe… would be ready for almost immediate use owing to the quick drying action of the sun. the hollow bowl of the pipe is formed when the clay is wet, and the shaft of a spear may be used to support the wet earth of the tube until it hardened.
“…the Bechuana who has filled the bowl of his pipe with hemp places water in his mouth. Then he kneels down and draws in the fumes with deep inspirations; thus the earth-pipe is used as an elementary form of water-pipe or hubble-bubble.
“Another ingenious form of ground pipe is made by digging a pit to serve as the bowl, from which a duct is made to lead to the surface by boring the soil with a stick. The smoker then extends himself prone on the ground in order to apply his mouth to the surface hole. Sometimes he may use the double pit connected by a tunnel which is made to contain water.”
An even more elaborate form of the earth pipe can be found in Afghanistan, and remnants of these pipes can often be found around the tombs of certain Islamic figures that condoned and even promoted the use of cannabis.
Robert Clarke describes these pipes in fascinating detail in his classic 1998 work, HASHISH! A chillum is used as the bowl of the Afghan earth pipes, and a hollow reed or piece of bamboo is inserted to give adequate length. Then a water hole with about a 50 litre capacity is dug in a damp clay soil, and a rock is placed at the bottom of the water pit to prevent the hollow reed from sinking into the soil. Sticks are placed over the hole with a space big enough for the bamboo, or hollow red tube, to reach the water, and then this is made airtight by covering it with clay.
A spear makes a hole into the side of the pit, below its freshly capped top, and a stick makes a hole for carburetion purposes. More hollow reeds can then be placed over these holes, so that standing or kneeling tokes can be received, instead of taking a hit from the wet earth. When finished whole operation is basically the same as that used for the traditional Hubble-bubble.
Herbert Pritzke, a German doctor who escaped internment in a Middle East POW camp at the end of the World War II by wandering into the desert and hiding amongst the Bedouin, gives us a detailed example of the solemnity which the desert Arabs perused their use of hashish to escape the boredom of the still desert nights in his 1957 book, Bedouin Doctor: The Adventures of a German in the Middle East: “There were five of us present, all young men, sitting around under a roof of maize straw. Sueylim’s brown fingers were rolling some grayish substance into a little ball, which he then heated to smoldering point with a burning corncob before inserting it into the bowl of the pipe. This, the narhile, was a short water pipe with a copper bowl and thin bamboo stem.
“From the moment when we gathered in the hut, no word was spoken. Silence was an essential part of the ceremony of hashish smoking, no less than the dignified gesture with which each smoker handed the pipe after two or three deep inhalations to his neighbor. Even when I interrupted the proceedings by choking and coughing after my first deep breath, no one gave a knowing smile. A solemn silence reigned. My second attempt was more successful, and I managed to inhale the smoke without choking.”
The good doctor relates how, like many first-time smokers, he felt little effect from the drug. But as he began to relax and close his eyes, he awoke into a dreamlike paranoid hashish fantasy that brought him back face to face with his former prison guards!
From chillums to blown glass
Perhaps the place where cannabis smoking is done with the highest solemnity, would be India. The beauty of the pipes and the joy of smoking have been demonstrated in countless Indian miniatures, which often depict couples in erotic embrace, or nude slave girls, smoking beautifully crafted hookahs.
The chillum seems to be the tool of the less fortunate smokers, as well as the wandering Sadhu. Yet, as with other pipes, even this basic design is believed not to have come into use until after the introduction of tobacco smoking. Generally, when cannabis is smoked in India, it is taken in honor of Shiva, who is widely considered the Lord of Cannabis, and a quick prayer, such as Boom Shiva, is exclaimed before taking a hit.
The modern water bong is the obvious development of the simple bamboo pipe, a reed that has been converted into smoking devices wherever it grows.
The popular glass pipe is thought to be a relatively new invention, but similar hand-blown glass pipes had a moment of popularity in the 19th century. Due to the lack of pyrex glass and their easy breakability, few have survived and their popularity was short lived.
Despite being surrounded by fine glass pipes, and having a Volcano vaporizer close at hand, I still find myself reaching for my antique hash bowl from the Ottoman Empire and my Moroccan Kif pipe sebsi. I strike a match, and burn that fragrant green resin as so many have done before me!
Pre-tobacco African tokers
By Nikolaas J van der Merwe, Professor of Natural History at the University of Cape Town
Some African cultures were puffing pot in pipes long before Europeans picked up the habit.
When the Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, the habit of pipe smoking was already well-established in South and East Africa. Pipes of different design have been excavated and radiocarbon dated in different areas. These include the clay bowl of a hookah from Ethiopia, circa AD 1300, which contained cannabis residue; clay pipes with right-angle elbows from Zambia, circa AD 1200; and carved stone pipes of the “straight through” type from Botswana, from contexts older than AD 1000.
Various plant materials were smoked in South Africa, including “wild dagga” and “ganna,” but the most popular smoke was cannabis, which was often mixed with the plants already mentioned. When tobacco was brought to the African coast after the European discovery of the New World, it was rapidly accepted and frequently mixed with the plants already in use.
By Professor Francis Thackeray of the Transvaal Museum in South Africa
The Bard of Avon was likely a midnight toker.
The photo above shows 17th century clay pipes from Stratford-upon-Avon, some of which contained traces of cannabis and other organic residues. The results of the pipe analysis were published by three South Africans, Dr Francis Thackeray (a paleontologist), Professor Nick van der Merwe (an archeologist) and Tom van der Merwe (a forensic scientist).
The results of the chemical study of residues from clay pipes were assessed in the context of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 76, in which he refers to creative writing (invention) in relation to a “noted weed.” The poet clearly prefers “the noted weed” and turns away from “compounds strange” (strange drugs).
It is possible that Shakespeare and other writers such as Francois Rabelais in France were deliberately cryptic about cannabis, at a time when it was associated with witchcraft. To be explicit about cannabis could have led to the burning of books.