by Marena Gibson
You may have heard that humans are more closely related to fungi than we are to plants. Though all 3 groups--animals, fungi, and plants-- belong to the same domain, or biological group, animals and fungi branched away from plants about 1 billion years ago.
Later on, animals and fungi also split in their evolutionary paths. Still, the fact remains that we share a more recent common ancestor with fungi and, as a result, are more genetically similar to them. It’s a strange concept, but next time you see some form of fungi, think about it: biologically, you’re more like that patch of wild mushrooms than the grass they’re growing in.
What exactly does this mean for humans? That’s hard to tell--but it might be the reason why humans have been able to successfully utilize fungi in so many different ways. For tens of thousands of years, mushrooms have been a valuable resource to humans. Whether for food, or medicine, or use in religious/spiritual purposes, even our ancestors relied on the benefits they provide.
In fact, mushrooms were so important and reliable, they were featured extensively in the artwork of our ancestors. The present-day country of Peru was home to a multitude of ancient cultures, and despite these distinct cultures being separated by thousands of years, thousands of kilometers, or both, their artwork is connected by the depiction of mushrooms. Across several mediums--carvings, statues, textiles, metalwork, and ceramics--mushroom imagery is prevalent in ancient Peruvian art, and much of it illustrates the different ways in which these cultures used them.
Mushrooms are an ideal food: They taste yummy, and they’re good for you. Take a look at some nutritional facts about edible mushrooms:
There is hard evidence that mushrooms were used as a food source by humans since at least 19,000 years ago. Though it’s likely mushrooms were eaten by humans long before that, spores of mushroom fungi were identified in the plaque on the teeth of a woman’s skeleton dated 18,700 years old, found in Spain. The researchers did acknowledge that the woman perhaps consumed the mushrooms for medicinal or spiritual purposes (more on that later!), but consideration of the entirety of their data suggested dietary usage. The study is really fascinating-- if you’d like to learn more about it, a link is provided in the References section.
Moving on to ancient Peru: What can their art tell us about the culinary significance of mushrooms? You’d be hard-pressed to find anything that definitively exhibits them being eaten for food. Luckily, historical records and writings, like that of Guamán Poma (a nobleman of the Inca empire, who lived during the very last decades before the civilization fell to Spanish conquest), documented the considerable role of mushrooms in the typical diet, giving confirmation that they were of some importance. Even so, the overwhelming majority of ancient Peruvian art depicts mushrooms--both explicitly and symbolically--in a medicinal context.
After that brief, unsuccessful stint in culinary representation, I’d like to redirect your attention back to the introduction, and the genetic tree of life, showing the animal kingdom (another biological group, more specific within a domain) and fungi kingdom. We’ve established that our kingdoms are similar, yes, but why did we stick together for so long?
Another way to look at this tree is in terms of co-evolution, or the similar evolutionary path that animals and fungi have taken together. We only split less than a billion years ago, which is relatively short in the grand scheme of the history of life, with the first living organisms developing 3-4 billion years ago. Our last common ancestor (LCA) wasn’t as distant as that of other groups. And after the branching off, we were still sharing the same environment. Granted, the needs of fungi and animals differ substantially, but we did face similar challenges.
Here’s a great, succinct summary of this concept from Dr. Paul Stamets, an expert in the field of mycology (the study of fungi):
“Similar to medicines that come from botanicals, many of the chemicals that fungi produce to flourish in the wild are also active in humans. This is likely not a coincidence. It is an evolutionary advantage for humans to coevolve with our environment and our medicines. Prior to [modern medicine], the humans who could use plants and fungi as medicines were able to survive [diseases] and reproduce.”
That’s where the genetic relativity comes into play. If mushrooms contain chemicals that function for their own immune systems, would it be likely they would function similarly if introduced to our bodies?
The Moche were a culture that persisted for a little under 1,000 years (100 BC - 800 AD), and is notable for their ceramic artwork that is highly-detailed, symbolic, and often anthropomorphic. Pictured is a ceramic figure of an adult healing a sick child; the mushroom on his head suggests that he is a curandero, or healer.
The mushroom is possibly Amanita muscaria, a species that might look familiar to you--the classic red cap with white spots; though it’s poisonous when raw, certain preparations decrease toxicity to a level that is seemingly safe for human consumption. It is unclear what sickness the child is suffering from, and such a vague image could be interpreted in various ways. It doesn’t help that A. muscaria is claimed to heal practically everything: polio, skin disease, headaches, depression, and more. However, we can safely conclude that this healer is using mushrooms to treat the child.
Here we have a warrior; again, this is an artifact from the Moche culture. At first glance, those mushrooms look kind of like A. muscaria, right? This figure actually has two different species on his head. It’s a little hard to tell, but there are 3 mushrooms altogether: The two identical ones in front are Calvatia cyathiformis, and the one that is shaped almost like a round hat on the top of his head, located behind and between the C. cyathiformis, is called Calvatia rurbrotincta.
Members of the Calvatia genus (a biological group of extremely similar species) are commonly referred to as puffball mushrooms, because they look like puffballs... Creative, right? Both species are known to treat the scarring of wounds, and also are effective at stopping bleeding. They are perfect to use on a wounded warrior, both literally and symbolically. Perhaps he is literally stopping bleeding, or perhaps the mushrooms symbolize his internal strength.
Considering the effectiveness of mushrooms as a powerful medicine, it makes sense that their significance trickled into other realms of their culture, and made their way into increasingly spiritual artwork.
The use of mushrooms (specifically the hallucinogenic variety) in spiritual and religious rituals goes back thousands of years, and is well-documented in cave art perhaps up to 9,000 years old. In the central Saharan desert, a group of rock paintings, the oldest of which are found at Tassili n’Ajjer (a rock formation in present-day Algeria), depict scenes that contain mushrooms, or mushroom-like objects.
The Pucara culture persisted from 1200 BC to 400 AD, a little over 1,500 years! Like the Moche, they were skilled in ceramics. The feline/jaguar featured has red mushroom caps for ears, and within the vertical, wavy lines beneath, you can make out a stem. Combined with the intoxicated, widened eyes, it suggests the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms. In fact, the Pucara produced several of these figures, and their mushroom imagery gives strong evidence for the notion that they used hallucinogenic mushrooms in spiritual rituals.
The Paracas culture (800-100 BC) created beautiful and intricate textiles. Shamans (people believed to have access to the spirit world) are often pictured flying; flight was an ability that came from the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms. This piece is a great example: A shaman, dressed in shamanic garb, is flying, and is holding a mushroom that displays the characteristics of the genus Psilocybe (a notorious type of mushrooms known for being hallucinogenic).
Mushrooms & Society
I was amazed when I first learned about this seemingly niche topic, but it was awesome to learn how prevalent mushrooms were in these ancient cultures, and all their uses. Some of these cultures were fully isolated from each other by location and time period, yet for thousands of years, they all took advantage of the properties of certain mushrooms and incorporated them into their lives.
Without such descriptive, representative artwork, it would be harder to determine their significance, or if they were significant at all. But their influence stretched into many areas of their societies, and even then, blended those areas together until mushroom use in artwork existed along a spectrum, rather than within discrete categories. Hopefully interest in this type of ancient artwork continues, and more artifacts are found; who knows what more they could tell us about these amazing civilizations, which are some of the oldest in the world.
Power, Robert C., et al. "Microremains from El Mirón Cave human dental calculus suggest a mixed plant–animal subsistence economy during the Magdalenian in Northern Iberia." Journal of Archaeological Science 60 (2015): 39-46.Wainright, Patricial O., et al. "Monophyletic origins of the metazoa: an evolutionary link with fungi." Science 260.5106 (1993): 340-343.
Straus, Lawrence G., et al. "“The Red Lady of El Mirón”. Lower Magdalenian life and death in Oldest Dryas Cantabrian Spain: an overview." Journal of Archaeological Science 60 (2015): 134-137.
Baldauf, Sandra L., and Jeffrey D. Palmer. "Animals and fungi are each other's closest relatives: congruent evidence from multiple proteins." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 90.24 (1993): 11558-11562.
Samorini, Giorgio. "The oldest representations of hallucinogenic mushrooms in the world." Integration 2 (1992): 3.
Trutmann, Peter. "The Forgotten Mushrooms of Ancient Peru." Global Mountain Action. Lima, Perú 33 (2012).
"Cultures and timeline." Museo Larco.
"Amanita muscaria." Plants, NC State University Cooperative Extension.
Our Environmental Science blog strives to explain and expose environmental topics and concerns to a wide audience. We hope that this knowledge will help all of our readers embrace a healthy and sustainable lifestyle!