Sadly, bongs are pretty well known these days. Telling mom it’s a vase probably won’t fly like it used to, and the cops can now spot the odd shape of that “conga” with expert precision. Once upon a time, though, nobody even knew how to smoke weed. Someone had to get the bud rolling, and while we may never know who took the first milky hit from a coconut-based triple perc with a stone ice catch, the history of one of our favorite cannabis consumption devices goes pretty far back.
While basic pipes have been used to smoke both tobacco and cannabis for thousands of years, mankind took some time before taking things to the next level. It’s all up for debate, and there’s no way to really know for sure, but there are some interesting sources that say we’ve been collectively bubbling bud for longer than you might think.
The prevailing theory of late states that bongs didn’t hit the scene until the 1300s or so, when Ethiopians in the famous Lalibela caves created a crude method of consuming hemp. As explained in Cannabis and Culture, archaeologist J.C. Dombrowski discovered remnants of water pipes that were built into the ground and powered by hot coals. The ancient culture used the device to consume hemp and tobacco. Cannabis resin was identified and tested in the pipes, though the archaeologists did not report whether they took a few blasts to test how high the ancient Africans were getting. We can only assume they did, then died.
A competing theory contends that a sudden herbal innovation craze apparently began to overtake Asia in the late 15th century, with widespread medicinal use leading to new ways of consuming cannabis and hemp. A recent discovery posted on Reddit features a bong from the 18th century that more closely resembles the shape and form we see in modern bongs than its African counterpart, while written records suggest that bongs were already in use by the 16th century, finding a strong advocate in Li Shizhen during the Ming Dynasty. It appears that the Asians were simply taking their time to invent a more refined product.
In any sense, the United States didn’t come into play until late in the game. There’s no record we could find of the first bong developed in a western nation, though it was probably Benjamin Franklin or someone “surprising” like that (yeah, we all know George Washington grew hemp and Shakespeare enjoyed a nice smoke now and then). One thing is for sure, though: what the US lacked in contributions at the beginning, we’ve more than made up for by offering some of the coolest devices available on the planet.