Did Cannabis Shape Ancient Societies? A Conversation with Chris Bennett

From the accidental discovery of life-saving mold to the creation of the internet, humanity’s passage through time was shaped by countless things now lost to the years. Our guest on this installment of Agrify’s The Future of Growth podcast, researcher Chris Bennett, has spent the last 30 years investigating how cannabis has been a constant presence on society, language, and even played an evolutionary role over tens of thousands of years.

Chief Science Officer David Kessler sat down with Bennett, who shared his insight from decades studying the potential intersection of cannabis and spirituality throughout human history. Having authored and co-authored numerous books on the subject, including Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion and Cannabis and the Soma Solution, Bennett has become a leader in the field.

Though by now it’s understood that humans have used cannabis for millennia, Bennett is among the most knowledgeable about how this came to be. Bennett also brings the unique perspective of a historian examining how cannabis affected humanity’s spiritual development. During this discussion, Bennett and Kessler discuss cannabis’s impact on human evolution and its possible influence on religion.

On the first day: How Bennett came to cannabis

Though Bennett’s research has made its way to international news outlets like the BBC, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Vice, to name a few, his life’s work on the topic of cannabis and man’s journey through the eras started with hemp roughly three decades ago. At that time, cannabis wasn’t as widely accepted in Canada—where he hails from—as it is today.

“All pot books and High Times were banned here in Canada. You couldn’t sell anything like that,” he said. “I looked in encyclopedias and sure enough, there was this incredible history about the industrial uses of [hemp].”

Shortly after learning more about hemp through his research, he stumbled upon a connection between cannabis and one of the Bible’s most important books—Revelations.

“One night when I was working as a night watchman, I ended up on a whim reading the Book of Revelations and I had this really powerful experience,” he said.

At that time, he interpreted that the Tree of Life at the end of the book was actually cannabis. Though his loved ones at the time thought he was wrong — or as he described it on the podcast, “having some sort of breakdown” over the possibility — he concluded that someone else eons before him must have drawn the same conclusion.

Does the Old Testament’s “burning bush” story refer to cannabis?

When it comes to cannabis and religion, most people invariably consider the connection between the plant and religions, including Hinduism and Rastafarianism. However, of particular interest to Bennett is the concept of cannabis in the formation of Judeo-Christian beliefs. Directly citing both the Book of Kings and the Book of Chronicles, Bennett pointed to the idea of Asherah, once seen as the wife of Yahweh (God), as a direct connection to cannabis.

“In some ancient inscriptions, Asherah is depicted as a tree with goats nibbling on her, symbolizing the tree of life,” Bennett said. “This is usually interpreted as wheat, but [one botanist] said that the Asherah priestesses anointed their skin with cannabis, as well as burnt it with an incense in the same way later monotheistic Jews did.”

Through his research, Bennett said he learned that the eventual shift to monotheism removed Asherah from scripture. The plant once seen as “an item of sacredness” — cannabis, referred to in the Bible as “Kaneh Bosem” – disappeared along with her. Bennett and others contend that “kaneh bosem” sounds suspiciously close to cannabis, a clear indicator that cannabis may have played a role in these ancient societies.

“In Exodus 30:23, God commands Moses to make this holy anointing oil with about six pounds of this kaneh bosem… mixed with myrrh, cinnamon, and cassia into about a gallon and a half of olive oil,” Bennett said. “Olive oil is really good for [infusing] THC. Moses would anoint his body with it, but he would also burn it on an altar of incense.”

Since researchers found that these rituals would have taken place in a tiny tent and the Old Testament says Moses would “speak to the Lord in a pillar of smoke that appeared over the altar,” Bennett said, then that could be interpreted as a psychoactive experience.

“That’s the physical presence of God—doesn’t talk unless the incense is burning and the spoke is flowing out of the Tent of Meeting (the dwelling place of Yahweh) … other than the Burning Bush,” he said. “This is radical because it turns Moses into more of a shaman who uses a psychoactive substance.”

Throughout their conversation, Bennett and Kessler discuss the potential impact cannabis may have had on various religions and cultures, including Christianity and Chinese culture.

Did cannabis play a role in evolution?

While it’s one thing to talk about the formation of social structures and belief systems, it’s another entirely to consider cannabis’s effect on the evolutionary path of homo sapiens. Citing the works of Dr. Jeffrey Guy and Dr. John McPartland, Bennett speculated on cannabis’s existence during a portion of the Paleolithic Period known as the Great Leap Forward. A theory about this period suggests that humanity gained major behavioral patterns during this time and doing things like inventing the wheel and learning to control fire. It was during this time, it’s speculated, man first uses cannabis.

“[Guy and McPartland] suggested that cannabis was likely discovered in the search for food because the seed’s extremely nutritious and may have stimulated the areas of higher thinking and memory… and created new novel ways of looking at problems and things,” Bennett shared on The Future of Growth.

In reality, cannabis and human civilization grew together partly because of the rituals in which they were involved. As one evolved, so did the other, as Kessler points out in the discussion.

“When we talk about co-evolution… we’re going from small seed, wild varieties, maybe through natural selection, they’re picking varieties, shaping the future of cannabis by maybe picking something that had more psychoactivity, more trichome coverage, or resin glands,” Kessler said. “So really when we talk about the evolution of a plant and the evolution of people, we really have to not look at them in a vacuum, because they influence one another.”

Pointing to research by botanist Michael Pollan, Bennett suggested that plants evolve in a way that makes humans want to cultivate them to help them propagate more, calling it their “evolutionary trick for survival.”

“A plant like cannabis needs cultivation to really get out there,” Bennett said. “[Scientist] Carl Sagan speculated that cannabis was humanity’s first agricultural crop, as he used the Pygmies as an example because they began agriculture after they began ritual.”

And while the Pygmies said they’d been using the plant “forever,” Bennett said the evolution of humankind could be seen in more than just how we used plants: It’s in how agriculture shapes everything.

“You can’t underestimate the role of agriculture in setting up calendars and things like that because it’s the seasons that we grow by,” he said. “This is a major shift.”

As we grow more conscious of cannabis in the modern era, Kessler pointed to different moments in time, stating that throughout history cannabis has been described as “as a poison and a panacea.”

“[This] is our opportunity, our privilege and our duty to really bring cannabis into a place in society where it’s not obscured by myth or hidden by ill-intended legal consequences,” Kessler shared.

Explore more episodes of The Future of Growth

David Kessler invites a new guest onto The Future of Growth podcast each month to hear emerging and unique perspectives on cannabis: its history, its role in society, and how the guest’s work drives the conversation around the plant going forward. Subscribe for updates on your favorite platform, including Spotify, Anchor, Google Podcasts, Breaker, Radio Public and Pocket Casts.

Check out prior episodes on the Agrify blog: