Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

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King Alfred (not a hunter gatherer) burning a woman’s cakes ยฉ BBC Horrible Histories

Fungi Friday 17th July 2020

I have been taking an online archaeology course through the website FutureLearn. You can imagine my sheer delight when one of the sections was focused on, you guessed it, FUNGI!

The course explores the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) archaeological site of Star Carr in Yorkshire. The fungi section of the course covers the species discovered at the site and what they might have been used for by the people living there between 15,000 and 5,000 years ago.

star_carr

Image of the Excavation site Star Carr located in North Yorkshire England. The image is a reconstruction Alan Sorrell’s reconstruction of Star Carr in 1951, Illustrated London News 3 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Mesolithic followed the Paleaeolithic (Old Stone Age) in 13,000BC, ending with the Neolithic (New Stone Age) around 5,000BC.

The Neolithic is seen as the period where human populations became more settled after the development of farming. These agricultural developments are what gave us much of the world we live in today. Current European farming techniques originated in the Middle East, slowly spreading west to replace the old hunting and gathering of the Mesolithic.

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Map of the spread of Neolithic farming cultures in Europe, dates in year BCE (via Wikimedia Commons)

But this isn’t Farmy Friday, so let’s get back to the pre-agricultural times when mushrooms were a key resource.

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King Alfred’s cakes

King Alfred’s cakes

The fungal finds at Star Carr have produced specimens of hoof fungus, willow bracket and birch polypore. This doesn’t include the species known as crampballs, King Alfred’s cakes, or in scientific language Daldinia concentrica. From experience, this is the fungus that people in Britain today most recognise as one which can be used in the process of making fire. This is probably because of the recent boom in bushcraft. The fungus gets its most evocative name of King Alfred’s cakes after an English folk story.

alfredandthecakes

To people outside the UK or without a grasp of English history, this name is quite meaningless. It is based on the tale of King Alfred who was exiled in the Somerset Levels during the Viking invasion of Winchester. Alfred failed to keep an eye on a woman’s loaves of bread that were on the fire and they burned. It is said that she had no idea he was the king, so far removed was he from his throne. Don’t worry, he eventually came back and pushed the Danes away a bit and established England.

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Birch polypore

Birch polypore

Last week I donated 1000 of my own words to the cause of bracket fungi. The findings from Star Carr have taught me about how these fungi were used by our ancient ancestors. Perhaps most interestingly, the fungi found were largely there because they had been foraged from elsewhere. Star Carr is a site next to a lake, so any woodland surrounding it will have been wet and it’s likely the people living there travelled to other places to gather fungi. There is evidence of the trading of ornaments and other items from across Europe, so people were not confined to the area itself in the way we live now.

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Birch polypore in winter, West Sussex

Birch polypore or razorstrop fungus haunts me out there in the woods. It is the one that catches the corner of my eye and fools me into thinking it’s autumn. It is a very common species where it acts to control population density. It plays a crucial ecological role in that it breaks birch trees down into nutrients and minerals, and therefore a substrate which can become soil. Fungi in woodlands are life-giving organisms. As a resource it was once used to sharpen tools in the manner of a leather strop, but it is also very useful in its ability to burn slowly and for long periods. This would have been crucial for people who were travelling and needed to make regular camps as we know Mesolithic peoples did.

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Birch trees coming into leaf in West Sussex

Birch trees

Birch is an incredible resource. Like fungi, it can be used to make fire. There is no doubt that birch will have been used by hunter-gatherers for this purpose. The bark was used to make slippers, matting, boxes, even canoes. At Star Carr birch bark rolls were discovered. The evidence is that they were cut from a tree and would have been used as torches. The ‘tar’ inside birch bark could have been extracted and used to secure flint arrow heads. Nowadays it’s known for being able to make birch wine when the sap begins to run in spring.

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The Bavarian Forest

Hoof fungus and hunter gatherers

The image above is of a dead beech tree covered in bracket fungi. Hoof fungus, so named because it looks like a horse’s hoof, appears to be a key species in Mesolithic Europe. It’s present across the Northern Hemisphere so it will also have been of use to Native American peoples. It has another common name of tinder fungus. An important material deriving from hoof fungus is amadou. This is the spongy inside of hoof fungus that can be used to make embers. The video below by the team at Star Carr shows how it can be used, along with pyrite, to make a fire. This is exactly what people in Mesolithic times would have done.

It just goes to show how resourceful people were in the Stone Age. It also reminds us of how important fungi has been to us, not just on the ecological level of recycling organic matter and its place in the woodland ecosystem. It helped to keep people warm and therefore alive.

Thanks for reading!

More mushrooms

2 Responses to “#FungiFriday: how hunter gatherers used fungi to make fire”

  1. Anneontheshelf

    Fascinating. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. (I blog about wild flowers so I know the time it takes!) I love the way history and use of plants stretches back. I was reading about Red Dead-nettle this week, a plant that was introduced from Europe in early agriculture. Following your blog now.

    Reply
    • Daniel James Greenwood

      Hi Anne, thank you for your lovely comment. I didn’t know that about red dead nettle. Where was it introduced from? It is such an urban success it kind of makes sense that it’s not ‘native’. Personally I am giving up on the notion of native because in the grand scheme of things it is almost irrelevant. Not that I’m a scientist.

      Thank you for recognising the effort. It does take ages but it’s motivated by passion for the topic, as I’m sure it is for you!

      Can you send a link in the comments to your blog please? Thanks for following.

      Daniel

      Reply

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