Buried Treasures: Herb Chambers Were Found in Africa, Asia

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In the modern era of marijuana — vaporizers, bongs, and prerolls, oh my! — we hardly have to wonder how we’re going to consume our fabulous flower. But cannabis has been around for thousands of years, and many cultures approached burning herb differently. And, believe it or not, one ancient technique involved smoking cannabis straight from the earth.

Illustration of “Kaffirs [sic]smoking hemp through an improvised ground-pipe using a bottle” by R. Caton Woodville from Illustrated London News, September 30, 1911.[1]

Remnants of this ancient practice can be found in southern Africa, where the smoking technique was widespread among natives. Detailed in an Oct. 15, 1921 article from Le Meschacébé, a Louisiana newspaper, the author witnesses the construction and use of an earth pipe to smoke cannabis, known locally as dagga, by natives in South Africa:

“He scoops a hole out of the hard ground 3 to 4 inches deep by 3 inches wide. A foot or so away from this he scoops another hole, and he then bores a small channel underground from one to the other. There is thus a free air passage connecting the two little excavations.”

“He places some dried dagga leaves in the first hole, lights them and covers them over with moist clay. He pierces this clay with a sharpened piece of wood to allow a draught to go through.”

“Into the other hole he inserts a small hollow reed – this is the pipe stem – squeezes moist clay round it, and on his knees begins his smoke.”

The construction of these earth pipes varied slightly between many of the tribes in South Africa.  

One tribe hinted at the future of water pipes with the earth pipe that included “bowl” and water filtration design, according to “Internationales Archiv für Ethnographie volume XIX” published in 1910.

Detailed several years before in 1907’s “Aus Namaland und Kalahar,” Bechuana natives would use wooden spears to form a larger passage between the holes, creating a huge hit for the smoker.

“Bechuana native smoking dakka (cannabis)” from a ground pipe. Illustration from “Explorations in South-West Africa” by Thomas Baines, 1864 [2].

Earth pipes could also be found in ancient cultures across Turkestan and into central Asia.  

In Turkestan, ancient peoples smoked excavated ground pipes known locally as “yer-chilin,” which, according to Henry Balfour’s 1922 paper, “Earth Smoking Pipes from South Africa and Central Asia,”[3] literally translates to “earth pipe.” And in an account detailed in 1894’s Illustrated Archaeologist,[4] Kashmir natives in India built an earth pipe of a design identical to those made by South African natives.

In this Kashmir region of India, the earth pipe was modified to allow multiple smokers. Similar in design to the modern-day hookah, these ancient Kashmir party pipes should be constructed as a “large common pipe” with a “crater” around which multiple smokers would sit.  

Illustration of a underground pipe used by the Turkomans of the Island of Cheleken, eastern Caspian Sea from the book “Reise durch Russland…” by Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin, 1784[5]

In North America, Ken Cohen’s “Honoring the Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing,” published in 2006, details the use of a rare “Earth Pipe ceremony” in which indigenous smokers put their cannabis stems in a pit of hot coals and tobacco.

The continent-jumping and widespread use of ancient earth pipes in ancient times by multiple cultures could suggest a “culture-link,” according to Belfour’s 1922 paper. [3]

Now, who’s got the shovel?


Banner image: “Native of Kashmir smoking a primitive earth pipe, from Illustrated Archaeologist,” September 1894 [3]

Source List

[1] Illustration by R. Caton Woodville of “Kaffirs [sic]smoking through an improvised   ground-pipe,” from Illustrated London News, September 30, 1911

[2] “Explorations in South-West Africa” by Thomas Baines, 1864.

[3] “Earth Smoking Pipes from South Africa and Central Asia” by Henry Balfour, May 1922

[4] Mr. E. Lovett in the Illustrated Archaeologist, September, 1894, p.100

[5]Reise durch Russland…” by Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin, 1784

Le Meschace´be´, Louisiana newspaper, October 15, 1921

“Internationales Archiv für Ethnographie volume XIX” in 1910

“Honoring the medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing” by Ken Cohen 2006

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