Sediments built up on lake beds are a fruitful source of proxy data for all kinds of time series – mainly climatic and ecological. Pollen, other organic remains, various stable isotopes, and a range of organic geochemical data calibrated to time using magnetostratigraphy, C-14 dating and astronomical ‘pacemakers’. Suddenly there is another proxy: cannabinol, the metabolite of tetrahydrocannibinol the principal psychoactive component of marijuana (Lavrieux, M. et al. 2013. Sedimentary cannabinol tracks the history of hemp retting. Geology, v. 41, p. 751-754). The compound is detectable at the parts per billion level thanks to advances in monitoring the use of drugs, particularly in sports persons – it ends up in the urine of users. So the paper by a team of French Earth scientists has a somewhat irresistible draw, the more so from the opening sentence of its abstract, ‘Hemp (Cannabis sp.) has been a fundamental plant for the development of human societies’. Indeed it has, for the earliest records date back to the Neolithic in China, perhaps back to 12 ka ago.
But then all becomes clear: they speak of hemp fibres used in rope and some textiles, and the climatic adaptability of the plant that has ensured its spread from Equator to north of the Arctic Circle and lesser southern latitudes. But there is an element of tongue-in-cheek, or at least so it seemed to me, as the objective of their research is to chart to emergence and rise of rope making in Central France. Freeing the useful fibres from Cannabis stems requires the plant to be soaked and subject to microbial action that breaks down soft tissue, know as retting that is also used in flax and coir production. The resin breaks down to cannabinol, which is therefore a perfect proxy for Hemp retting.
Lac d’Aydat is geologically famous as it formed when a lava flow from one of the puys of the Massif Central blocked a valley and became a dam. It figured in the pioneering volcanological research of English geologist George Julius Poulett Scrope. Its new place in science rests on Lavrieux et al.’s chronologically calibrated time series for retting from the lake’s muds. Hemp pollen in the section betrays the start of Cannabis cultivation in the Auvergne between 500-650 AD, but hemp retting in the lake is marked by a cannabinol spike in the 13th century and increases in pollen. It fell-off sharply in the late 19th century, probably as a result of being outcompeted by more easily processed cotton.
Almost 7 centuries of Cannabis processing in central France actually took a toll as cannabinol is toxic to fish and cattle. Despite a 1669 Royal Ordinance against hemp retting in French rivers it continued unchecked in Lac d’Aydat, but more likely than secret retting tucked away in a remote corner of France it stemmed from the ordinance being widely flouted. That it ended with the rise of cotton is not so convincing as hemp is still a staple in rope manufacture, and when the US entered World War II large tracts of land were placed under Cannabis to produce naval cordage; the reason why it still grows wild in abundance across many States. There is plenty of evidence, including this, that use of Cannabis for cordage came rather late, and plenty in support of its cultivation and wide spread before the Iron Age for ‘relaxation’.