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December 17, 2021
How Would Cannabis Have Evolved Without Humans? We Asked a Legendary Cannabis Ethnobotanist

BY MADISON COLE

Humanity is a funny thing. From the perspective of humans throughout time, we have predominantly acted as the "rulers" of this beautiful blue planet, conquering its every surface and utilizing its resources for our growth and survival as a species.

If the Earth could talk, however, it would have a very different story to tell. One that includes the ongoing damages of the Industrial Revolution, as well as human intervention throughout every aspect of nature for our own benefit, like the deliberate breeding of animals and plant life for various purposes of human use.

Despite the carbon footprint our species has left thus far, our ability to manipulate nature has created some pretty spectacular innovations. In Cannabis, we've witnessed human intervention lead to the development of a growing family of distinctly different Cannabis species. Today, we have Cannabis strains that are so diverse in color, uses, and effects, that it’s difficult to directly compare them with one another.

But that begs the question, how would Cannabis have evolved if humans had never existed? Ember spoke with legendary cannabis ethnobotanist, published author of multiple books, and co-founder of BioAgronomics Group, Robert C. Clarke, to answer these existential questions.

In order to understand how and if Cannabis would have survived on its own, the first logical step is to determine just how old this incredible plant is. Clarke believes that Cannabis is “a relative newcomer” in geological terms. 

“The supercontinent of Pangea began to break apart around 175 million years ago forming the earth’s early continents,” he said. “At the dawn of the Cretaceous Period, 30 million years later, flowering plants emerged as the continents moved toward their present positions.”

Even at this point, with evolving vegetation making its introduction on Earth, Clarke says that Cannabis was still probably non-existent. “Some researchers place the appearance of Cannabis at around 65 million years ago at the start of the Tertiary Period when grassland ecosystems began to form.”

In 2013, Clarke published an in-depth book with fellow botanist and author Mark Merlin, called Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany—a detailed exploration of the early origins of Cannabis and its important role in the development of human societies.

“In [the book] Mark Merlin and I hypothesize that Cannabis and its sister genus Humulus, or hop, evolved from a common Central Eurasian ancestor only around 22 million years ago, as flowering plants colonized temperate latitudes and evolved short day length flowering responses,” he said.

Clarke went on to add that modern-day humans likely encountered wild Cannabis populations as they spread across Eurasia around 20,000 years ago. Seeds from these plants began to flourish in open areas near riverside settlements. The first evidence of human agriculture then appeared about 12,000 years ago and the domestication of Cannabis as we know it is closely linked to that evolution. 

So, if we took humans out of the equation altogether, how would Cannabis exist today? Would it exist at all?

“Based on observations of feral populations that are no longer selected by humans, we can begin to imagine what evolutionarily primitive early Cannabis plants may have looked like,” said Clarke. “Adaptation to a local environment, sexual reproduction and dispersal of the resultant seed are really all that matters to the survival of most flowering plant species.”

Clarke pointed out that humans have intentionally created much larger flowers or buds, highly enhanced cannabinoids, and increased fiber [add content] among many other traits. Without this intervention all of that would need to be stripped away.

He added that early Cannabis populations would have still had some influence from birds and other mammals which would have modified the plant's evolutionary path, and without what Clarke called human’s “relentless colonization of Earth,” Cannabis would have continued to grow widely across its original Eurasian habitat. It would have “slight variations in response to natural selective pressures” but compared to what we have today, cannabis would remain very similar to its original wild counterpart at the dawn of its existence, with not much difference between strains.

Read on below for in-depth excerpts from our interview with Robert C. Clarke:

EMBER: In your estimation exactly how old is Cannabis and where did it originate?

ROBERT C. CLARKE: In geological time, genus Cannabis is a relative newcomer. The supercontinent of Pangea began to break apart around 175 million years ago forming the earth’s early continents. At the dawn of the Cretaceous Period 30 million years later flowering plants emerged as the continents moved toward their present positions. 

Some researchers place the appearance of Cannabis at around 65 million years ago at the start of the Tertiary Period when grassland ecosystems began to form. In Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany, Mark Merlin and I hypothesize that Cannabis and its sister genus Humulus, or hop, evolved from a common Central Eurasian ancestor only around 22 million years ago as flowering plants colonized temperate latitudes and evolved short day-length flowering responses.

Why do wild Cannabis species differ from region to region? Is it due to various factors such as climate, soil types, surrounding foliage, etc.?

Cannabis populations evolved in geographically isolated regions with localized climates, soil types and surrounding vegetation which led in part to the differences we notice today. These factors would have been the only selective forces acting on the evolution of truly “wild” Cannabis populations in the absence of humans, but since the origins of agriculture Cannabis populations have been grown and selected by farmers. 

Cultivated varieties resulting from this essential human-plant interaction are called landraces and they differ significantly resulting both from variations in natural factors, and selections by farmers in various cultural settings for differing uses. During the 20th century, crosses between these traditional local landraces fueled the breeding of modern-day fiber, seed, and drug cultivars.

When did different Cannabis species begin to spread around the globe through human transport?

Modern humans most likely first encountered truly wild Cannabis populations as they spread across Eurasia, and as the Northern Hemisphere warmed following the Last Glacial Maximum around 20,000 years ago. Seeds collected from wild plants began to opportunistically flourish near riverside settlements, in open areas cleared of competing plants and enriched by the waste of human occupation. 

Observations of the convenient productivity of these favored plants led to the seminal idea of cultivation. The first evidence of agriculture appears around 12,000 years ago during the early Holocene Epoch as the earth began its present warming. The domestication of Cannabis leading to the plant as we know it today is closely linked to the evolution of the agricultural systems on which our species now relies.

If the human species never existed, how would Cannabis have evolved in your opinion? What would it be like today?

The variations we experience in Cannabis today are predominately results of the human-Cannabis relationship, and even relict populations escaped from cultivation were at some time in their evolution altered by humans. Based on observations of feral populations that are no longer selected by humans, we can begin to imagine what evolutionarily primitive early Cannabis plants may have looked like.

Adaptation to a local environment, sexual reproduction and dispersal of the resultant seed are really all that matters to the survival of most flowering plant species. Humans manipulate these processes to extremes, so we must strip away many of the traits selected during its domestication such as larger flowers, enhanced cannabinoid and essential oil synthesis, and increased fiber and seed oil content among others, and imagine truly wild populations growing in a landscape unaltered by human settlement and agriculture.

Given that reproductive survival is the key to success, naturally growing Cannabis populations flower over a wider range of their annual life cycle and mature seeds readily fall from the flowers, thereby creating a wider range of opportunities to establish the next generation. By today’s standard, female plants in these populations produce thin inflorescences that are relatively low in cannabinoids and have little aroma, but they survive in nature without depending on humans.

Early on, Cannabis would still have had relationships with other organisms such as birds and mammals that would have modified its evolutionary path and dispersed its seed; all without humans to make selections of favorable traits and spread its seeds far and wide throughout our relentless colonization of earth. Wild Cannabis populations would have continued to grow in their original Eurasian habitats and would still be found there today. They would exhibit slight variations in response to natural selective pressures but compared to today’s wide variation resulting from human intervention, they would all appear much the same to us.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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