Mushrooms in Prehistoric Times

Cave painting at Selva Pascuala. Photograph by Alan Piper.

Mushrooms may only recently become an everyday commercially farmed foodstuff for most of us but the human race has been gathering and using mushrooms for various purposes for quite literally millennia.  Here are some of the oldest examples found of the use of fungi in prehistoric times, and pretty amazing they are too.  

The Red Lady’ of Cantabria, Spain.  

She was discovered at El Miron, a significant prehistoric site on the Iberian Peninsular (modern-day Spain) known for its cave paintings, in 2010.  She was buried about 18 700 years ago, during a period referred to as the Magdalenian Paleolithic.  This was a time when there had been mass migration from the north into southern France and Iberia to avoid the extreme cold of the Ice Age which was still covering northern Europe.  When the Red Lady died she was between 35 and 45 years old. Evidently quite an important person in her community, the Red Lady was not only given a special burial, interred behind a carved stone, but there are higher than usual traces of a specific pollen at the burial site, suggesting that a kind of yellow daisy was heaped on her body in abundance.  As her body decayed it was repeatedly treated with red oxide of a kind not normally found in that area, hence her archeological name, the ‘Red Lady’.  

Some of her bones are missing, possibly taken by animals but her lower jaw was intact, including most of her teeth. Oral hygiene was evidently not a strong point at that time and what we know of her diet comes from analysis of the plaque on her teeth.  Spores of types of Agaricales and Boletaceae were found this way, along with the remnants of the various fruits and berries that would have been part of her diet.  If it was the fly agaric, Amanita muscari, she may well have been a holy woman or seer as this mushroom is an hallucinogen. At the moment analysis is not quite accurate enough to pinpoint this.  

The people of the Paleolithic period were hunter gatherers and would have been dependent on wild food for their survival.  They would have had an extensive knowledge of what was safe to eat and what was poisonous as well as which plants and fungi had medicinal properties.  As they did not have a written language it is only through their prolific cave paintings and scientific analysis of remains such as those of the Red Lady that we can discover the secrets of our prehistoric ancestors.

The Selva Pascuala Mural

In a cave near the Spanish town of Villar del Humo there is a 6 000 year old prehistoric archeological site mainly famous for its well-preserved mural.  The most striking image in the mural is of a bull but the most intriguing is a row of 13 small mushroom-like objects that look remarkably like ‘magic mushrooms’. This captured the attention of the media as well as the international mycological community.  Brian Akers from Pasco-Hernando Community College in New Port Richey, Florida, and Gaston Guzman at the Ecological Institute of Xalapa in Mexico believe that the objects are the fungi Psilocybe hispanica, a local species with hallucinogenic properties. These may have been used for religious or shamanist  purposes. The cave shelter in eastern Spain was found by an archaeologist in 1918 and is one of about a dozen Mesolithic-Neolithic rock art sites in Spain’s Mediterranean basin.  This is more recent than the Red Lady by about 12 000 years.   According to the New Scientist, this isn’t the oldest cave painting to depict ‘magic mushrooms’.  An Algerian mural that may show the species Psilocybe mairei is 7000 to 9000 years old.

Otzi the Iceman.  

Otzi was found by hikers, frozen in a glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991, close to the border with Austria.  He died around 3300 B.C. and had been naturally mummified over time, leaving his remains in a remarkably good state of preservation.  Apart from clothes and a copper axe he also had among his possessions two polypore mushrooms threaded through with strings.  The first, Piptoporus betulinus or birch polypore, is a potent anthelmintic (antiparasite drug) and he may have been carrying this for medicinal use.  The second, fomes fomentarus or tinder polypore, is a tough and woody fungus used as a fire lighter. These finds give us a clue as to what was understood of mushrooms and their uses during the Copper Age. Apart from mushrooms, Otzi has revealed many secrets into the life of Chalcolithic (Copper Age) European man as his clothes and various other artefacts were found frozen in the ice with him.  We know he was most likely a shepherd and that he suffered from arthritis in  his knees and ankles.  We know that he had striated tattoos on those joints which suggests the use of medicinal tattooing to alleviate pain, a practice most usually associated with oriental cultures pre-acupuncture.  Thanks to his naturally mummified state and modern CAT scan technology, we know what meats, grains and berries he ate for his last three meals. We also know he suffered from a parasitic infection, which may be why he was carrying birch polypore.

These are just some of the better known examples of the use of mushrooms in prehistoric times.  There are many others, including in Mexico and South America.  Food for thought the next time you pick up a punnet of fresh mushrooms from the supermarket.

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