Earliest Evidence of Human Mushroom Consumption Detected

Earliest Evidence of Human Mushroom Consumption Detected

5 May 2015 - 10:45


The human diet during the Magdalenian phase of Europe’s Upper Paleolithic is poorly known. This is particularly a problem regarding food resources that leave little trace such as plant foods. A new study suggests that already Upper Palaeolithic individuals used a variety of plant foods, including mushrooms. Although the Magdalenian in much of north-west Europe is commonly characterised as the period of the ‘reindeer hunters’ this is unlikely to have been the case in Iberia. Other lines of evidence showed diet included a substantial amounts of meat supplied from Red deer and ibex, but until now it was unclear if foods such as plants were a component of diet.

A study lead by Robert Power, a PhD candidate in the Plant Research Group of the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology co-supervised by Dr. Domingo C. Salazar-García from the University of Cape Town, has explored diet in the region through dental calculus analysis on Magdalenian individuals found at El Mirón Cave (Cantabria, Spain). Optical and scanning electron microscopy with energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy detected yielded a diverse assemblage of microremains from the dental calculus. These microremains from plant, fungal, animal and mineral sources provide some indication of Magdalenian diet. These types of microremains show that the individuals at El Mirón consumed a variety of plants from different environments, as well as other foods, including possibly bolete mushrooms.

Archaeologists know almost nothing about the early use of fungus. Although its use is poorly understood in prehistory, ethnographers have noted that recent hunter-gatherers have often used fungi as food, flavouring and medicine. Mushroom use has firmly been identified from as early as the European Chalcolithic. The Chalcolithic Tyrolean Iceman “Ötzi” carried several types of fungi on his person. This finding at El Mirón Cave is likely the earliest indication of human mushroom use or consumption, which until this point has been unidentified in the Palaeolithic.