Fungi is not something we learn much about in school, if anything at all. Even in an Environmental Science degree you do not delve deep into the wonderful and complex world of fungi. Throughout human history, there has always been a connection and understanding of fungi, some of this knowledge is only just starting to be slowly uncovered again.
The topic of fungi is an incredibly diverse and complex topic, I have decided to share some information in relation to human history and the role it has played.
The first organisms that appeared on land, according to the current fossil record, were fungi. They first appeared on land around 1.3 Billion years ago, plants followed 600m years later. Fungi could do this because they could munch rock, they used acids to break down the rock into small enough particles to digest, doing this helped to put down the basis soil for the plants that appeared on land all that time later. These fungi species are the ‘vanguard’ species that colonises a habitat, later followed by plants and then animals.
A major way that most living organisms have been able to colonise new areas of earth is by forming relationships with the many species of fungi in that area. Including humans. Human history would be very different without fungi.
As humans began the spread from Africa into Europe and Asia, they would have finally discovered ‘winter’, being very different to the winters they would have been used to in the African forests near the equator. For humans to continue to spread, they needed to find a way to survive through the intense, cold winters of Europe especially. This was done with the help of mushrooms, as has been discovered with the finding of polypore mushrooms on the ‘ice man’ found in the swiss alps. These mushrooms were used as a fire starter. You can hollow the mushroom out, put embers inside it and it would keep the fire going for days. This significantly helped the migration of humans out of Africa.
Having the portability of fire aided migration and allowed humans to go to places that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to go to. The fire keeper of any clan has historically played an important role. When you pound this mushroom after boiling it in water, it separates into a fabric. This fabric is highly flammable and also revolutionised warfare because it was used in early guns to help ignite the gun powder. Any clan, tribe or group that had this knowledge would have a strong competitive advantage over any others. Therefore, a major part of being successful in human history was the understanding of how to use the various species of mushroom that were available. These days we have lost much of that knowledge, although we now use fungi for other reasons, like making some of the most potent medicines on the planet, such as penicillin.
Guest blog post written by talented and passionate tour guide at the Caves: