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The Prehistoric age of Hemp

Hemp is the name commonly given to the Cannabis sativa plants. Hemp has been, in the course of history, one of the plants that was used most by the human being.

In Italy, the most ancient traces of the presence in nature of hemp can be found in the Albano lake, in the province of Rome, dating 11.500 B.C., in 9000 B.C. in the Lago Grande of Monticchio, in the province of Potenza, and in 7000 B.C. in the region of the Nemi Lake, near Roma (Mercuri et al., 2002).

Going back several centuries in History, the “sightings” of hemp become ever more common.

Various archaeological studies have allowed to find hemp pollen in three sites of the Middle Neolithic (4500-4000 B.C.) of the Emilia-Romagna region.

The detections brought the researchers to the conclusion that the presence of hemp wasn’t due to natural growing, but to a clear anthropogenic intention. In other words: hemp was cultivated and used for millennia, also in a remote past. The reason for this millenary history is soon clarified.

Hemp is  an extremely versatile ents, ropes for vessels made out of Italian hemp were considered of premium quality and represented a commodity of commercial exchange.

Hemp in Europe: fabrics, ropes and books

The rest of the world and Europe weren’t certainly an exception. Also in our continent hemp fibre was  a very common material. Just think about the fact that paper made out of hemp imposed itself as a standard, due to its enormous strength with respect to papyrus or about how easy it was to obtain it.

Until a century and a half ago the large majority of paper produced worldwide was made of hemp. In order to understand at which level its spreading reached, it should be considered that the masterworks of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, an inestimable document like the Declaration of Independence of the United States, or even the Bible of Gutenberg from 1450 were all printed on hemp paper.

Furthermore, the use of hemp wasn’t limited to the textile or publishing sectors. Its use in the most disparate fields is widely reflected, from cosmetics to construction. For millennia it permitted the production of oils, combustibles, ropes and food products.

The end of hemp cultivation in Italy

Between the 1940s and the 1950s, Italy was one of the countries at the summit of hemp production. According to Coldiretti (National Confederation of direct cultivators) at that time there were 100.000 hectares of hemp cultivated land in Italy, a fact ranking our country second in the world, after the endless cultivations of the Soviet Union. What happened afterwards – a sudden decline in the use of hemp – is to be attributed to two reasons.

In the years of industrialization and economic  recovery, main events of this historic phase in Italy, denominated “the economic boom”, new synthetic fibres were introduced on the market, like, to mention one of the most famous, nylon. The new materials imposed themselves not very gradually among the production chains, ensuring that hemp was abandoned.

Another factor to be taken into consideration in order to understand the decline of hemp production, was the international campaign against narcotics, which undermined the “reputation” of the plant. In 1961 also Italy subscribed the “Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs” (updated in 1971 and in 1988), which had amongst its objectives the elimination of hemp within 25 years.

The word “end” to this first part of the history of hemp cultivation in Italy, was written in 1975 through the “Cossiga Law” (Law n. 685, December 22, 1975, “Discipline of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances”), with which, in fact, hemp almost disappeared from the national territory.

Rennaissance. Cultivating hemp today

Today we assist an actual revival of the cultivation of hemp in Italy. According to the new data presented by Coldiretti (and contained in the study “The new hemp economy” of 2018) we are in the middle of a “boom”.

If in 2013 the hectares of hemp cultivated land were only 400, after only five years they increased tenfold, passing to 4.000. The hundreds of realities, net of a more open legislation with respect to the past, opting for hemp as the founding basis of their production, are occupying and renewing in a myriad of sectors, exactly like our ancestors did.