The bong is probably the most popular and beloved smoking device in the history of human cannabis use. Some go as far as to name their bong. We collect and sometimes decorate our bongs, and we mourn our loss when they go to pieces. Yet, for something so precious, we know surprisingly little about the bong. And much of what we think we know about it is wrong, including the history of this wonderful device.
What you might have heard:
The bong is a descendent of the hookah. The word “bong” is derived from the Thai word ‘baung,’ which means ‘a cylindrical wooden tube, pipe or container cut from bamboo.’
This history was largely based on two factors. First, since cannabis is native to Central Asia, and has been used throughout history in China, it has always been assumed that the bong was invented in Asia. As the hookah uses water filtration like the modern bong, it was always assumed that the bong was developed from the hookah. [For those odd cases where this explanation didn’t work, it was assumed that straightening tobacco devices and filtering them through water led to the invention of the bong.]
Second, although early bongs have been discovered elsewhere, it has always been assumed that these bongs were introduced to the societies in which they were found by whomever introduced cannabis. Researchers had never seriously considered that the bong might have been invented outside of Asia. It was.
The bong was invented in Africa.
Previous studies of African smoking devices wrongly assumed that all smoking pipes radiated from the West Coast of Africa beginning when tobacco arrived on the continent. It was assumed that tobacco smoking spread across the savannah as a substitute stimulant for kola. Thus, whenever archaeologists found pipes in Africa, they automatically thought that the pipes were from 1600 CE or later. If this were true, it would mean that any African water pipe would be too young to have been invented before the hookah. But it was false. This theory completely missed the African cultures in the east and south that had been developing smoking devices before the arrival of tobacco.
We cannot be sure when cannabis first arrived in Africa, but archeologists believe that Africans smoked cannabis long before they ever smoked tobacco. J.C. Dombrowski found evidence of the earliest African cannabis smoking in Ethiopia. Eleven pipes were located in two caves and dated to between 1100 and 1400 CE. When researchers tested the pipes, they found ample cannabis residue. Here are the archaeologists’ drawings of the bowls they tested. Look familiar?
Yet the official story ignored this. In 1930, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago printed a series of pamphlets about tobacco that speculated that the Portuguese brought the water pipe to the Africans from Persia. The pamphlets were later frequently used as a reference by researchers. However, this distorted guess at history was based on a belief that water pipes were recent to Africa. Archaeologists have since learned that this was wrong. But, until now, the history of the bong has never been corrected.
The first African pipes were built into the ground. Lighted embers were placed in a buried bottle and hemp was placed on top of the embers. An underground duct led from the chamber to a mouth tube a short distance away. The earth pipes looked so much like the earth pipes of Central Asia, that Henry Balfour concluded that, “The resemblances are sufficiently striking and numerous to suggest that they must be explained by the assumption of a culture link between the two widely separated areas.” Of course, this meant that they were invented in Asia. He never considered an African origin.
Balfour also found a “tube pipe,” which he believed might have been the ancestor of the water pipe. Today we call it a “bat” or a “chillum.” Balfour never explained why he thought Africans would have simultaneously adopted an outdated technology if they were brought the more advanced water pipe by the Arabs.
In 1924 Alfred Dunhill published a survey of the smoking pipes of the world. The book included a chapter on the widespread use of a water pipe in eastern and southern Africa that was a distinct design that he believed was the invention of the San people. Because this did not fit with the common theory, he was ignored.
In 1945, archaeologist Mary Leakey found this water pipe in Tanzania. The bowl on top is connected to the water chamber in the bottom by means of a tube; the mouthpiece is on the curved neck of the gourd.
At the time of her discovery, experts took for granted that Arab navigators brought cannabis and cannabis pipes to Africa during the middle of the thirteenth century. They reasoned that these cannabis pipes must have descended from Asian pipes. But this version of history never made sense.
The theory ignores the fact that cannabis in Asian Islamic societies was eaten, rather than smoked, before the introduction of the water pipe in the early years of the seventeenth century.
Furthermore, all archaeological evidence indicates that Africans primarily chewed and snuffed tobacco, while they mostly smoked cannabis. The alternate theory that the tobacco pipe was adapted to cannabis by straightening it out and filtering it through water was also wrong because cannabis predates tobacco in Africa.
Simply put: Africans invented the bong to smoke cannabis.
As for the name, we are told that it comes from the Thai word ‘baung.’ But could the Thai instead have adopted that word from the Africans? In modern day Kenya, right where Mary Leakey found her water pipe, lives a rapidly disappearing tribe called the Bong’om. Their language is also called Bong’om. Across the continent we find Bong County, Liberia. It is named after Mount Bong. Did all of these Africans cling to some Thai word for a piece of cut bamboo? Or… could the early Thai stoners have named their most beloved device after the people who invented it?
African Smoking and Pipes
John Edward Philips
The Journal of African History, Vol. 24, No. 3 (1983), pp. 303-319