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.
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.
But this isn’t Farmy Friday, so let’s get back to the pre-agricultural times when mushrooms were a key resource.
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.
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.
Last week I donated 1000 of my own words to the cause of bracketfungi. 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.
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.
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.
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.
In September 2017 I visited the Pálava Hills in south-eastern Czechia, close to the border with Austria. Beginning at the Archeopark Museum in Pavlov, where an exhibition of some of the most important Paleolithic finds ever were on show, and finishing in the town of Mikulov, I try to capture the world of our hunter gatherer ancestors, the Gravettians.
I take the road up towards Děvin, a hill where Děvičky, a ruined 13th century castle faces out towards Austria. From the surrounding vineyards sounds the booming of gas cannisters designed to deter flocking starlings from eating the grapes fruiting at this time of year. A church stands in the heart of Pavlov, and a small murmuration of starlings swoops and morphs in search of a perch. The faux-shotgun fire is working. I pause at a bench overlooking Dolní Věstonice, and north of this a village now flooded after the damming of the river Dyje. Long before the flooding, some 30,000 years ago, a tribe of people known as the Gravettians kept watch from the hills with small encampments and fires. When herds of reindeer and roaming mammoths entered the valley they lit fires to signal that the time to hunt had arrived.
Down in the village of Pavlov the Archeo Park Museum protrudes from the grass bank like fragments of chalk, perhaps an attempt to reflect what’s kept inside – some of the most revealing human artefacts ever to be found. In this area of the Czech Republic, now known as Czechia, evidence has been found to show that hunter gatherers, the Gravettians, lived in these hills approximately 30,000 years ago, disappearing when a climactic cooling took place 8,000 years later.
The items on show in the exhibition include a copy of the Venus of Dolní Věstonice. This sculpture is of a woman with large, elongated breasts and wide hips. Its meaning is unknown but it suggests some ritualistic celebration of the female form and fertility. There are many such small sculptures to have been found but more often broken into pieces, possibly smashed as part of a ritual. The Venus was found almost complete. Yet more intriguing is the presence of a fingerprint said to be that of a child between the age of 7 and 15. Was this a gift in mourning from a father or family member to a child after the death of their mother?
Whatever the explanation is, a ceramics culture appears well ingrained in the world of the Gravettians, something unknown until the discoveries were made here in Moravia. The exhibition, lodged deep at the foot of the Pálava Hills, brings to life the human history of this Carpathian outcrop. Here I learned about the megafauna that both predated and sustained the human tribes in what will have been a cold and unforgiving landscape, one that has much changed from that of the Paleolithic hunter gatherers. In Dolní Věstonice, flooded after the damming of the Dyje, only the village church remains above water on a small island, along with the skeletal remains of trees that drowned with the intentional flood. Red-footed falcons, ospreys and other birds of prey are said to perch on those dead branches. To look out from this point is to see an industrialised landscape of crops and vineyards.
The Gravettian hunter gatherers used wood for specific purposes, and they had the ability to prepare flints and stones for weapons. The use of wood suggests an understanding of woodland management, at least how trees will grow and which species is most useful for a specific task. The permanent settlements of the Gravettians were constructed from timber. Ash and hazel were surely the preferred material for a spear, if they did indeed grow in the area at that time, as they produce straight and flexible poles unlikely to snap upon impact, therefore able to be picked up and chucked again. Both can be split by the flints and other sharp tools they had with ease, similar to their use in making early wooden hay rakes. As for stones or flints, the Pálava Hills are part of the Carpathian massif, formed in the Mesozoic, no more than 250 million-years-ago, from the residue of the oceans that once washed here. Limestone is simple to quarry, as a sedimentary rock it is younger and subtler that igneous or metamorphic rocks. But the colder conditions of the time would have made that difficult, therefore the animals they hunted would have been crucial in all the resources they provided.
The river Dyje runs south of Pálava, joining with the Morava at the border of Czechia, Slovakia and Austria. These two great European rivers are tributaries of perhaps the greatest, the Danube. It is thought that the first Homo sapiens to enter Europe 42,000-years-ago did so by following the Danube and its floodplain. It was rich in resources: water, wood from floodplain forests, fish and meat, rocks and stone, and pelts from animals present in its riparian margins. This behaviour has resulted in the creation of many European cities along major rivers, my home city of London and the Thames being a fine example. The Dyje’s braided channels and meanders are where the Gravettians based in the Pálava Hills found their flints and stones for tools, weapons and crafts. Here they found fish and beavers for pelts. Thankfully beavers are still in the area, despite the attempts of local Moravian fishpond owners to eradicate them.
Into the woods
The first break from the town is into Děvin’s woods, where a steep track worn by feet and running water swerves through multi-trunked trees: small-leaved lime, elm, hornbeam, ash. These are old coppice stools, trees once cut down, their wood harvested for firewood or some other need. Now they are overgrown. These woods hold plants that are not found in many other places, including rare bellflowers, and birds such as black woodpecker, hawfinch and golden oriole. The woods will not have been the same 30,000-years-ago when the Gravettians lived here, so much colder was the climate and closer the northern European glaciers. At this time Middle England remained under ice.
Worse still for the vulnerable hunter gatherers, wolves and lions would all have hunted from the cover of woods and the caves held within. But wolves were a key prey for hunter gatherers in Pálava, with their bones commonly found near former settlements. The Gravettians lived in tepee-like tents made from wolf and other animal skins and pelts, meaning that hunting was a crucial part of their lifestyle. Mammoths would have been the key prey in housing a tribe because of their size and the rich bounty of materials that could come from them. Other megafauna included arctic fox, woolly rhinoceros – a species which beggars belief – elk, reindeer, horse, deer, ibex, chamois and maybe bison. Now only the red fox, chamois, ibex, deer and wolf remain from this array of wonderful animals. Wolves inhabit Czechia, Slovakia, Poland and are moving into Germany, Belgium and even the Netherlands.
Reaching the light beyond the woods I take the choice of a lower route with more cover. This rain is the thin, fast-falling, soak-you-through kind. The path is pale with the calcium of the chalk. The slopes from the hilltop are dotted with scraggy scrub, some are charming little oaks, a species once more common in Czechia, before a move to German forestry ethics of pine and spruce took hold. Ironically these are the trees that will have sprouted from this rocky outcrop some 30,000-years-ago.
The grasslands the scraggy oaks stand in are muted and yellowed, but in season they are some of the richest around, with uncommon plants, many tied to these limestone hills, and a rich abundance of moths and butterflies. They are a rare habitat known as steppe grassland, a remnant of the open landscape that the Gravettians entered into. It’s likely that these meadows hold more species of butterfly than all the British species combined. The Gravettians of Pálava had problems with less colourful insects. They were known to use red dye to deter the mosquitos that plagued them here in the Dyje floodplain. Even today mosquitos are considered a major problem in the area, exacerbated by attempts to dam the river near the Austrian border.
These grasslands tell a further story of the Gravettians, one which says much about the world we live in today. Work by Italian archaeologists has led to the discovery of microscopic plant matter on rocks used in the form of a pestle and mortar. The Gravettians may have been grinding down grain or other plants to create pastes or other foodstuffs. This technique has a domestic hint to it, suggesting that the farming or Neolithic revolution of 4,000 BC was not the explosion it is sometimes said to be. Perhaps the Gravettians took with them from the Middle East and Africa an understanding of how to do more than forage, also to use certain plants to produce pastes and even soups.
Evidence suggests the role of the already present Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, is not completely recognised in how our own species adapted to life in Europe. There is evidence of hazelnuts being ground down into a paste by ‘British’ hunter gatherers to use on the move, a source of energy that suited their lifestyles. Our Paleolithic ancestors were not dim cave people banging their heads against the wall; their lives were short, their strength and fitness great, their understanding of natural resources far keener than the average person today. Who out there could ever hunt a wolf with hand tools?
Walking on, the path dips in and out of more coppiced woods, the stools extending in length and thus in age. Chlorophyll has already begun to fade from the leaves, creating a faint glimmer of yellow in the woods. It’s a welcome shift from the grey, misty day. I pass down into more woods where flocks of marsh or willow, great, blue and long-tailed tits join with nuthatches to feed in a rain-drenched glade. The rain falls hard and I sit under a picnic watching it pour down, the birds still flocking, calling, feeding. It’s a time to regret not getting the bus and instead confining yourself to a march over open hills, with the mist stealing away views.
Memories of sunnier times
In 2013 I woke up in a tent on an old farm and walked from Mikulov at dawn over the Pálava Hills, ending up at Dolní Věstonice. It was July and vital to begin at first light to avoid the highs of a Moravian summer. Hence the images used here don’t quite correlate to the reverse I experience now: rain and cold. In 2013 the hills were being tramped by families from Czechia, Poland, Austria and Slovakia enjoying summer holidays, today I am unlikely to see anyone at all before the villages and eventually the major town of Mikulov. Back then golden orioles sang from trees and colourful bee eaters lined up on telephone wires. Now these African migrant birds have returned south to avoid the European winter. There is a heavy sense of absence in this place.
On that sunny day in July 2013 the vista of Austria was clear, the end of Czechia marked by the reversion to thin strips of farmland and crops, white wind turbines spinning on the horizon. Mikulov castle stood clear against an Austrian tapestry of fields and small woods. The castle (‘zamek’ in Czech) itself has relevance to the Gravettian treasures found in Pálava. During the Nazi invasion of Czechia (1938-45) the fascists wanted to continue the work of the Czech archaeologists. Many of the artefacts were kept in Mikulov castle. During a battle to remove the Nazis from Pálava, the castle burned down and many important items were lost. Thankfully the Venus was being kept in Brno and survived the devastation. Never forget that war is about more than an atrocious loss of human life, it so an attempt to erase certain histories and cultures, even if it was not the desire of the Nazis on this occasion.
I pass over Stolová hora where horses graze against the desolate horizon. Mountains of cut scrub are piled alongside the path, cleared to allow the wildflowers and their co-dependent butterflies and other insects to remain. In July I saw crested-cow wheat and sparkling shows of stellarias in these meadows. Down from the hills once more, I walk alongside the road with sweeping views of endless monocultural crops, a throwback to Soviet collectivisation that has led to huge environmental difficulties: biodiversity loss, soil erosion and aquatic pollution from pesticide run-off. The average field in Czechia is 500hectares. Many come here to photograph the undulating fields and valleys of Moravia, known as ‘Moravian Tuscany’ in places.
At Klentnice a bus sweeps by: wet and muddy I trundle on. Cyclists ride in the opposite direction towards Pavlov, the leader speaking English in guiding tones to two Australian friends who listen closely. In 2013 I noted viper’s bugloss, poppies, thistles, knapweeds, scabiouses tended by red tailed bumblebees and painted ladies. ‘The colours of the living strike against the black, crumbling tarmac edge’, said the notes. Not today.
Before turning up onto Turold, the final hill of this three peak challenge, I stop to photograph a small-leaved lime tree lodged between houses and parked cars. It is a natural monument, even located on the Czech map service I’m using on my phone. These trees are commonly planted across eastern and central Europe. They are the linden tree, one of the first to colonise after the most recent glacial period 14,000-years-ago. The small-leaved lime is the Czech national tree. The Gravettians would have had a use for this tree, perhaps eating its leaves and making tea from its flowers.
The path curves around Turold, with a view of the hills I have just walked, stretching away in the rain beyond vineyards. Turold is a series of limestone outcrops heavily wooded and cut internally by networks of caves. The rock faces are where the eagle owl nests, Europe’s largest, a beast that preys on birds as big as buzzards and ravens. The caves contain colonies of lesser-horseshoe bats, one of Europe’s most threatened species. Of course, all this is only clear because of information boards, for which a visitor should be grateful. Perhaps the best information of all comes from the edge of Turold and the beginning of Mikulov. Here stands a wooden shelter selling refreshments, it’s a bat bar. Faded laminated photographs are stapled to the wooden panels showing images of inside the caves and bats roosting. Sadly, the bat bar is hibernating.
Of castles and campfires
Arriving back in Mikulov the question comes to mind: could those Paleolithic Gravettians ever have dreamed that a building as grand as Mikulov castle might stand here looking south towards the great river Danube? Living in tents of animal skin, carving small sculptures of rhinos, mammoths and images of deceased mothers and sisters, what futures did they dream of? The castle is grand, indeed, but it is not dissimilar to the hunter gatherers keeping watch from the hilltop – you only have to note the structure on each of these hills to realise that we share the same desire for protection from threats appearing on the horizon.
Distant the Gravettians may have been in time but in practice and creativity we are the same, but for the fact that their strength, stamina and practical skills are likely to have far outweighed our own today. We still carry their fears of insect bites, of megafauna that might hunt us, though we are without that very same megafauna, projecting those fears onto the closest thing we have, imagining that our countrysides are the domain of great unknown beasts.
The thing that I take from the knowledge of our ancient ancestors is a need to remember our origins, not in nationalities or ethnicity, but our place in nature. The Gravettians faced everyday difficulties which we do not, but there can be no doubt that we share the same need to create, to move freely, to use the resources we have wisely. The Gravettians are thought to have left Moravia because of climate change, exacerbated by the micro-climate of the Carpathians. They moved south for a time out of necessity but then came new generations who went on to establish our great European cities and institutions. These ancient people we patronise and know so little about, we are indebted to them.