Professor and Chair of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of New Mexico Chris S. Duvall is the author of The African Roots of Marijuana and the leading expert on the history of cannabis use in Africa. His book is available on Amazon and at most bookstores.
The Paper.: In what way does marijuana have its roots in Africa?
Duvall: There’s three different ways that I think are important to recognize. Some of them are just surface and basic level; like the words that we use for marijuana are in many cases African. “Marijuana” itself traces back to the word mariamba, which is spoken in a number of different languages in western and central Africa, most notably Kimbundu.
Angola is historically where it came from. Kimbundu was trade language that was spoken across the Atlantic, and that word traveled across the Atlantic when slaves carried the seeds. So you see that word spoken in various forms, either presently or historically, in Brazil and Colombia, in Jamaica, in Mexico—which is, of course, where “marijuana” ultimately comes from. Then there’s a handful of other words that crossed the Atlantic from Africa that are spoken in different parts of the Americas as well.
Another way marijuana has African roots is through paraphernalia—the technology of marijuana and smoking. It’s very well and widely known that tobacco smoking and tobacco pipes originated in America. But Africans independently invented smoking pipes. For at least about 1,000 years, people have used pipes in Africa with marijuana. Prior to that, they used pipes for several centuries with other plants. But the water pipe in particular is an African invention. We have evidence going back you know, again, about 1,000 years of people using these. The water pipe, the hookah, the bong—that technological foundation is based on African knowledge.
And then the other way is more complex. It has to do with the context in which cannabis is used and associated with different social and economic conditions. In Africa, particularly in the early modern period up through the 20th century it was really associated with hard labor. As I mentioned, it traveled with the slave trade. Slavers and slaves alike appreciated it for its health effects. It was used as a stimulant and as an cure-all medicinal plant.
In that kind of association with labor, exploited people effectively traveled with it across the Atlantic. And that same sort of social-economic context still exists across the Americas even though marijuana is increasingly becoming mainstream here in the United States and in many other countries. That kind of association hasn’t gone away, even though people don’t always acknowledge it in current contexts.
So again, that kind of relationship—that people-plant relationship that is characteristic nowadays—has many of its roots in in Africa.
Why is Africa’s historical role in the proliferation of cannabis overlooked?
There are a number of reasons. One is that Africa is too often overlooked particularly in terms of global cultural history. The idea that nothing of value culturally or technologically has come out of Africa is something that’s rooted in attitudes of the slave trade and has continued in academia and popular culture, though this is flatly incorrect. There’s a number of different examples that myself and other geographers and historians have looked at that show that Africans were profoundly important in producing knowledge that shaped the New World after 1492.
The other reason is that in the past century—during cannabis prohibition—there really has not been a lot of research on a number of aspects of human-cannabis interactions. People interested in cannabis history didn’t look at Africa much at all, and the people who were interested in African history and African cultures didn’t look at cannabis. So you have this gap. People were not looking in the space that cannabis occupied.
How did it move to the Americas?
We have evidence in terms of the geography of the language and the geography of the agriculture and the geography of plant genetics. We can look at language—different terms used for cannabis in Africa. We see these distinct patterns of distribution that followed known trade routes within Africa and from there across the Atlantic. And then we can look at how the plant was used in agricultural practices and see characteristic patterns that also follow these trade routes. And then the genetic work also shows these patterns of distribution.
It arrived in East Africa, probably about 1,000 years ago or thereabout—maybe a little longer than that. And it traveled across the continent starting about 1500 or a little later along slave trading routes. We know that enslaved people from the lower Zambezi River Valleys—like the Malawi area—started to be forced across the continent ending up in Angola in the mid 1700s or so. And that’s about when we started seeing evidence in Western Africa, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, that there was psychoactive cannabis there.
We also have a lot of accounts of how it was used within the slave trade. That includes everything from slavers giving slaves cannabis to smoke during their forced marches from inland towards the coast. There was a commercial trade that paralleled this. Slaves were made to carry commercial shipments of cannabis to the coast. And then we have accounts of slaves who were holding seeds with them as they were waiting to embark on the transatlantic trip. And then we have lots of evidence of where people ended up across the ocean, and evidence of their knowledge of cannabis appears in these places.
Historically, we’re looking mostly at Angola as being a point of embarkation for the plant. And so in the places where these people disembark, we see the plant showing up there with African plant names and technologies of use. In a couple of places across the Atlantic, there are actual oral histories that were recorded in the early 20th century of people recollecting cultural memories of how the plants traveled across the Atlantic.
But everywhere it ended up, it was taken up by people of all backgrounds. Workers of all types have appreciated it. And so as soon as it arrived in new societies, it was no longer just an Angolan thing or even an African thing. It was a thing that hard laborers appreciated all over the place.
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