History of Cannabis – An Evolving Natural Earth Science

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Biochemistry and Physiology: Common Ancestral Links Between Flora and Fauna

Evolutionary natural selection provides indirect evidence of mankind’s effective use of botanical substances.  Whether for nutrition or remedies, plant source chemicals are essential to sustain life, and have been exploited by animals since the beginning of time.  Human life’s evolution along with plant life has revealed common ancestral chemicals recognized to be essential to our health and survival.  One has only to look at the essential “life blood” molecules of hemoglobin next to chlorophyll to appreciate that these remarkably similar chemistries connect an ancient botanical past to the complexities of our evolved modern human physiology.

In ancient times, healers were depended upon as horticultural botanists. If they did not understand how to keep plants alive, healers would have lost their formulary and most certainly have failed at their craft.  From the earliest of primitive nomadic tribes, to the advancing agricultural civilizations that followed, botany remains central to mankind’s successful evolution.

Early civilization’s “physician” healers included Imhotep (2667-2648 BC) in Egypt and Hippocrates (460-370 BC) in Greece who understood and responsibly shared the importance of plants to sustain health.  These two historical figures are widely regarded as The Fathers of Modern Medicine in that they recorded their botanical findings to herald the beginning of the evidence-based healthcare science.

How cannabis evolved worldwide

Unlike most plants that use several methods of distribution such as wind, insect cross-pollination, or seed dispersal by animals, human agriculture is credited for Cannabis’ worldwide transport from Asia subsequent to the last ice age.

There is accumulating genomic evidence that native and natural traditional landrace Cannabis strains evolved their ancestral balance of synergistic phytocannabinoids and essential oils that successfully co-evolved with humans to find their way around the world. Teleological discussions reason that if used by human beings for over 10,000 years, these traditional Cannabis strains likely interplayed favorably with human genes to meet the survival needs of an adaptive physiology. Considering mankind’s successful survival along with Cannabis since the last ice age, when intuitively regarded as an ethnobotanical “experiment”, the evidence of human survival to indicate a therapeutic tolerance supports evolution as the ultimate “knock-out” design model. (*)

How to Identify Cannabis Strains – Challenge for Taxonomy

As humans came to better understand living organisms, several systems to group plants and animals were devised according to the available knowledge of the time.  Mankind’s current attempt to categorize plants into an acceptable taxonomy includes both nomenclature and classification. 

The mid-18th century Linnaean hierarchal order in use for naming organisms is based on eight taxa and includes: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.

In botany, the starting point was in 1753 the year Carl Linnaeus first published Species Plantarum using binomial nomenclature (genus; species).  Renderings of herbarium specimens and classical botanical drawings remain as the accepted standard for plant identification because by convention they depict all parts of the plant’s life cycle in a single image including seeds, roots to stems, and leaves to flowers.  The morphology and shape of a plant’s flowering parts were traditionally used to determine many groupings.

Classifying Cannabis Species – Indica or Sativa

Cannabis is also categorized as being dioecious because separate plants contain either male or female reproductive organs, requiring cross-pollination to set seed.

One contributing reason why field-grown male and female Cannabis plants often have been referred to as “weeds” is because the male plant’s pollen is easily windswept to nearby readily-receptive female flowers to create seeds. Because the greatest content of phytocannabinoid and terpene chemicals are found in un-pollinated female flower bracts, the female plants are usually kept separate from males to ensure that more energy contributes to plant chemical production rather than seed production. Hence the Spanish word Sinsemilla meaning “without seeds” was derived to describe the female plant flower’s rich chemical content.

The two common Cannabis species used for medical purposes are referred to as indica, and sativa.  The existing nomenclature for the genus Cannabis is used to legally distinguish its contrasting commercial uses.

Whereas few, if any, true purelandrace varietals actually still exist, today’s “medical marijuana” as developed under Federal Prohibition more accurately refers to a collective term representing man-made hybrids between traditional sativa and recreationally popular indica species of the genus Cannabis.

Despite its cultivation as a source of food, fiber and medicine, and its global status as the most frequently used illicit drug, the genus Cannabis currently has an inconclusive taxonomic organization and evolutionary history. Drug types of Cannabis (marijuana), which contain high amounts of the psychoactive cannabinoid THC, are used for medical purposes and as a recreational drug. Hemp types are grown for the production of seed and fiber, and contain low amounts of THC.

Hemp is a strain of Cannabis sativa species that has been incorporated into the industrial manufacture of various derived products. It’s use can be found in multiple commercially viable products including biodegradable plastics, biofuel, clothing, textiles, insulation, paper, food, and food for animal consumption.

Are Hemp Plants Male and Female?

Primarily male, hemp does not represent flowering buds at any stage within their life cycle. Due to centuries of selective breeding, hemp now produces relatively low concentration levels of THC and has a faster growing rate to improve stalk harvests.(4) 

Where is Hemp Grown?

Hemp is usually grown outdoors to maximize its size and yield, and less attention is paid to individual plants, while in contrast achieving maximum THC levels in Cannabis sativa as a drug requires close attention to horticultural conditions.  Certain Cannabis strains known to contain more CBD than THC are found within industrial hemp that have recently been of therapeutic interest for treating neuro-movement disorders.


Genetics Brings Improved Accuracy to Marijuana Strain Identification

As the science of genetics vastly improves our ability to understand evolutionary nature, the widely accepted genus and species binomial nomenclature designation has increasingly been challenged, requiring frequent reconfigurations.

DNA-based research can offer botanists a better understanding of the relationships between plant species. This knowledge will help them select plants that share similar biochemical assays, thus guiding their screening and selection of plants for potential medicinal use.

Marijuana strain names usually do not reflect a meaningful genetic identity. When marijuana and hemp were differentiated at a genome-wide level, only a moderate correlation between the genetic structure of marijuana strains and their reported C. sativa and C. indica ancestry could be correlated. (5)  Accurate data acquisition from patients receiving a known cultivar’s chemical constituents will be essential to responsibly advance therapeutic whole-plant use, so reliable methods for identifying whole-plant genotypes are needed to safely advance translational endocannabinoid research. 


(*)Re: Author’s exception: Teleological paragraph’s inclusion within cannabis (ethno)botany education.

 In modern science, explanations that rely on teleology are often, but not always, avoided, either because they are unnecessary or because whether they are true or false is thought to be beyond the ability of human perception and understanding to judge.”

Ransom Johnson, Monte (2008), Aristotle on Teleology, Oxford University Press pages 23-24.

(1) Manktelow, M. (2010) History of Taxonomy – Lecture from Dept. of Systematic Biology, Uppsala University.

(2) Swanson, TE (2015), “Controlled Substances Chaos: The Department of Justice’s New Policy Position on Marijuana and What It Means for Industrial Hemp Farming in North Dakota” (PDF), North Dakota Law Review, 90 (3): 613

(3) “Erowid Cannabis Vault : Culture #2”. erowid.org. Retrieved 2008-06-20.

(4) http://www.leafscience.com/2014/09/16/5-differences-hemp-marijuana/

(5)The Genetic Structure of Marijuana and Hemp

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