Neolithic Humans Used Dried Fungi

Some 7,000 years ago, inhabitants of a small settlement at the Early Neolithic waterlogged site of La Draga (Girona, Spain) dried non-edible fungi for use as tinder to light and transport fires.

An artist’s impression of prehistoric humans in Europe.

The La Draga site is located on the eastern shore of Lake Banyoles, 22 miles (35 km) from the Mediterranean Sea and 31 miles (50 km) south of the Pyrenees. The site corresponds to an open-air settlement whose surface area is estimated to exceed three acres (15,000 m2).

Two phases of occupation (5324–4977 BC and 5210–4796 BC) with distinctive construction traditions have been documented, both attributable to the Late Cardial Ware Neolithic culture.

The reconstruction of subsistence activities indicates a well-established farming economy mainly based on livestock and cultivation.

“The site of La Draga is one of the exceptional examples for the study of archaeological remains,” said Dr. Raquel Piqué, a researcher at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

“Despite the use of fire being well documented at La Draga, we had not yet found proof of the materials used to light or transport it.”

“Data gathered points to the majority of fungi recovered were selected, taken to the forest surrounding the site, dried and stored, with the intention of using them as tinder. In addition, it was evident in two of the samples we analyzed that they were being used for this purpose, which proved our hypothesis.”

Ganoderma adspersum remains partially carbonized; the dashed box indicates the charred region of the fruiting body. Image credit: Berihuete-Azorín et al.

At La Draga, Dr. Piqué and colleagues recovered the fruiting bodies of six fungi species: Skeletocutis niveaCoriolopsis gallicaDaedalea quercinaDaldinia concentricaGanoderma adspersum, and Lenzites warnieri.

“Being able to recover these remains is extraordinary, given that their conservation as archaeological material is very difficult due to their easiness to decompose,” said Dr. Antoni Palomo, a researcher at the Archaeology Museum of Catalonia.

“The majority of fungi recovered at La Draga are polypore and can both grow on dead tree trunks and parasitize living trees,” the archaeologists said.

“They are non-edible species which have been traditionally used to light fires, and are therefore known as tinder-fungi.”

“Their woody structure makes them high inflammable and therefore ideal for starting and transporting fire.”

A paper reporting this discovery is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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