Character Co. Blog
The Big Bong Theory
The Mistaken Origins of Smoked Cannabis
Western historians of both the academic and popular persuasions have continued to mistakenly credit the peoples of the Levant region in the eastern Mediterranean (modern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and western Iraq) with the invention of the waterpipe or bong, largely through repetition of poorly supported conclusions. Most European travelers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were first exposed to smoked cannabis in the Levant region. They wrote about and sketched images of communal hashish smoking for curious Europeans back home and admired the exotic and elaborate elegance of Levantine smoking technologies. Contemporaneous travelers or colonial officials in Africa who observed cannabis being smoked in waterpipes assumed that the technology had spread south to Africa via traders from the more “civilized” Levant region, an assumption that was continuously repeated by later generations of historians despite there being no evidence for it. In fact, cannabis has only existed in the Levant as a smoked drug for about five hundred years. Cannabis did not originate in Africa, but firm evidence indicates that Africans were the first in history to smoke it.
The oldest pipe ever excavated
Archaeological evidence tells us that smoking was independently invented by both indigenous Africans and First Nations peoples of North America at different (and somewhat indeterminate) times, although archaeologists have uncovered only dry pipes in the North American record while the African record has yielded evidence of both dry pipes and waterpipes. The oldest pipe ever excavated in North America dates to 7000 BCE and the oldest yet excavated in Africa dates to 600 BCE. These dates, however, can only provide tentative start dates for the practice of smoking on either continent. A major problem with dating the origin of smoking is that most pipes were made of biodegradable materials and therefore would rarely survive long in the archaeological record. Ancient Africans constructed pipe containers from coconut or calabash husks, animal horn, bone, wood, stone, but likely most commonly, from earth. Pipe stems might be fashioned from bamboo or banana petioles. Changes in African pipe design beginning after 1000 CE could indicate the first arrival of cannabis in Africa. Discoveries made in East Africa show that the size of pipe bowls increased significantly after this time. This could indicate greater availability of a smokable substance, or a more benign one of which greater portions could be safely consumed. Tobacco is not native to Africa and it is unclear which indigenous herbs were most commonly smoked before the introduction of cannabis, but one of the main candidates is an herb called datura, which produces similar effects to cannabis, but is far more toxic with more frequently fatal consequences for overdose.
Oldest residue found
It is difficult to firmly date its first use as a smoked drug in Africa because like all organic matter, cannabis deteriorates, but the oldest excavated evidence of smoked cannabis (residue inside a pipe bowl) comes from Ethiopia and dates to the early 1300s CE. The nearly twelve thousand-year history of human-cannabis relationships can be traced originally to central and southern Asia, but all evidence indicates that cannabis was traditionally ingested rather than smoked in Asia. For example, edible cannabis use in the Levant region predates the introduction of the hookah, making a strong case for the notion that cannabis was first introduced to the Levant by a non-smoking people. Besides, the hookah was used in the Levant almost exclusively to smoke tobacco, a post-Columbian product, not cannabis. While the eastern Mediterranean and eastern Africa may have received cannabis at roughly contemporaneous times (about two thousand years ago) by two different plant dispersal routes from Asia, it would take several centuries for the African technology of smoking to make its way into Levantine and many other cultures who did not yet know the benefits of smoking versus ingesting cannabis.6 As a process for drug delivery, smoking is inarguably more efficient and precise than ingestion. Without the advantages of modern pharmaceutical production, cannabis drug use by way of ingestion produces highly variable and unpredictable experiences for the user. It is difficult to estimate the right dosage and the user has to wait up to an hour to feel the effects. Smoking, on the other hand, delivers the drug directly to the bloodstream and effects are felt very quickly. Additionally, smoking allows the user to control their dosage much more efficiently.
The origin of the bong
The fact that most people do not automatically think of Africa when asked about the origin of the bong is the result of biases which have been built into both historical and popular discourses on cannabis. It may be convincingly argued that the world history of the last several centuries is the history of empire and colonialism. The historian is a product of his or her time, no matter how hard they might try to remain above the fray as an impartial caretaker of the past. Eurocentric colonial-era historians helped to cultivate academic perspectives based on the racial hierarchies which characterized most aspects of colonial society. From a historical perspective, this meant that Europeans could never conceive of giving credit to Africans for inventing a superior technology. In fact, historians would often make efforts to fit contradictory evidence into their existing narratives. They theorized that ancient pipes found in Africa must be evidence of earlier exposure to Levantine traders or colonial activity, even though there is no evidence of such.
The lack of credit for the important role Africa has played in cannabis histories is even more evident when one examines the 1980 U.S. patent registration for the “bong.” The claimants of the patent acknowledged the models of previous technologies such as “the Oriental bong,” made from bamboo, that U.S. troops were exposed to in Vietnam. They also recognized the hookah or narguilé as a contributing technology. There is, however, no mention at all of African technologies. How then, one might ask, did these claimants justify the application for a patent on an already existing invention? The 1980 patent for the bong featured a second pipe stem without a bowl which, it was claimed, would help the smoke clear more effectively, or could help the user dilute their dosage by drawing in additional air if needed. However, nineteenth-century (and perhaps earlier) Angolan water pipe designs fulfill these functions more efficiently and precisely than the patented model. The calabash-based Angolan water pipe design featured a “carb hole” above the stem which many bong models also feature today (see figure 1.1). This hole allows for greater control over smoke flow simply by placing or removing one’s finger. The patented model (see figure 1.2) needlessly complicates the bong’s construction by requiring two watertight entries into the bowl, and thus also diminishes control over air and smoke flow.
Most world histories, including cannabis histories, have been distorted by exposure to colonial and post-colonial conditions. Marijuana in western society has long been alternately vilified as a drug of marginalized racial underclasses, justifying law enforcement abuses of minorities, while at the same time, it has been enjoyed by middle-class and upper-class Europeans and North Americans as fun, harmless, or mildly decadent experimentation.10 The assumptions of superiority and inferiority implied by the racial hierarchies that Eurocentric historians have perpetuated have prevented people from recognizing and acknowledging the origin of a hugely significant contribution to global culture which African cannabis cultures have made. Sharing a bong, a joint, or a vaporizer is a socially cohesive experience, a bonding ritual, even a religious rite. Marijuana’s recent reintroduction for medical purposes has begun to rehabilitate its image enough to invite further study, but a post-colonial intellectual re-alignment could do the same. Having more academic discourse about both cannabis history and African history will clarify and add desperately needed depth and breadth to the study and understanding of both.
Chris Duvall, The African Roots of Marijuana (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 16-19.
William A. Turnbaugh, “Native North American Smoking Pipes,” Archaeology 33, No. 1 (January/February 1980), 15.
Ibid., 16, 53, 64, 80.
Dias de Carvalho, H.A. “Mutopa” engraving. In Expedição portugueza ao Muatiânvua: Ethnographia e historia tradicional dos povos da Lunda. Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional, 1890 (293). Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, Lisbon.
Duvall, Chris. The African Roots of Marijuana. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.
Erickson, W.V., P.K. Jarvie, and F.L. Miller. “Waterpipe or Bong.” U.S Patent 4,216,785, issued 12 August 1980, assignee: F.L. Miller.
Turnbaugh, William A. “Native North American Smoking Pipes.” Archaeology 33, No. 1 (January/February 1980), 15-22.