Archaeology

Study to detect the first evidence of human consumption of mushrooms

A study published in the ‘Journal of Archaeological Science has detected the first evidence of human consumption of mushrooms.

“Our work reveals that, as early as the Upper Palaeolithic, individuals used a wide variety of plant resources, including mushrooms”, says Salazar García.

This group of researchers have explored the ancient diet by analysing the dental calculi of Magdalenian individuals in the Cantabrian site of El Mirón. Analyses by optical and scanning electron microscopy have revealed a wide range of microremains of plant, fungal, animal and mineral origin assembled in dental calculi throughout life that provide valuable information on nutrition in the Magdalenian period.

Getting to know our ancestors’ diet

Usually the techniques used to reconstruct prehistoric dietary habits focus on the consumption of animal products. For this reason, according to the researcher, “this kind of studies provide information about the use of plant resources that is important to have a more complete picture of the diet of our ancestors. This type of microremains show that individuals at El Mirón used to eat a wide variety of plants from different ecosystems and other foodstuffs such as ‘boletus’ mushrooms”, says the Valencian research associate at the Department of Human Evolution of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

     

Domingo Carlos Salazar acknowledges that archaeology has not provided much information so far about the early use of mushrooms. And although their use during prehistory is poorly understood, ethnography has identified that recent hunter-gatherer groups have frequently used mushrooms as food, condiment and medicine. “This use of mushrooms has been positively identified during the European Chalcolithic, once the foundations of the farming and stock-rearing economy had already been laid”, he says. For example, the famous chalcolithic iceman discovered a few decades ago in the Alps, Ötzi, was already carrying mushrooms on him. However, the new discovery at the site of El Mirón is the first evidence of human use of mushrooms, which was so far unknown for the Palaeolithic period.

The human diet during the Magdalenian phase of Europe’s Upper Palaeolithic is little known. This is particularly true regarding the consumption of plant resources, which leave little trace in the archaeological record. Although the Magdalenian period in much of north-western Europe is commonly regarded as the period of reindeer hunters, this was not the case in the Iberian Peninsula. Other evidence showed that diet included substantial amounts of deer and ibex, but until now it was unclear whether other types of food like plants were a component of diet.

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