The history of Kanna, also known as Sceletium tortuosum, is a fascinating journey through time, culture, and geography. This revered herb, indigenous to South Africa, has played a significant role in the lives of the local people, particularly the Khoikhoi and the San tribes, since prehistoric times. These tribes, initially hunter-gatherers, used Kanna for various purposes including relief from thirst and hunger, to combat fatigue, and for social and spiritual purposes. They had a profound connection with the plant, associating it with the sacred eland antelope and referring to it by the same name: 'kanna'.
The area where Kanna was found was so rich in the plant that it was called ‘Channaland’ by the local inhabitants, reflecting the abundance of Sceletium and eland in the region. The rich oral tradition of knowledge about Sceletium tortuosum, unfortunately, faced decline due to conflicts with settlers, genocidal raids, and acculturation, mainly during the 17th century colonial era.
The first written reports of Kanna came from Dutch explorers like Van Riebeeck in 1662, who bartered with locals for the plant. The Dutch noted the plant's effects and termed it 'kougoed', meaning 'good to chew', appreciating its ginseng-like qualities. By the 18th century, Kanna had become a significant trade item, highly valued for its mood-elevating and therapeutic properties, with people traveling great distances to trade it.
Carl Peter Thunberg, a Swedish botanist, reported in 1773 that Kanna was used as a chewed and fermented substance, often mixed with other herbs, including cannabis, for intoxicating effects. This combination was noted to enhance the intoxicating effect of cannabis. By the mid-19th century, Kanna had established itself as a traded commodity in several centers, used for treating insomnia, diarrhea, and also chewed as a mild narcotic.
The first isolation of an alkaloid from Sceletium tortuosum was in 1898 by Meiring, who called it mesembrine. This discovery led to a deeper understanding of the plant's chemical composition, though its exact composition remains elusive.
Kanna's long-standing history reflects its significance in South African culture and its evolving role in global herbal medicine and recreational use. From its traditional roots to modern applications, Kanna has remained a plant of great interest and value.