Paleolithic “Red Lady” Ate Mushrooms…19,000 Years Ago

Editor’s Note:

Although I spend a lot of time on this blog writing about edible wild mushrooms, I have a particular fascination with the history of the human-fungus relationship. Historians, anthropologists, and ethnomycologists (those who study the connection between mushrooms and human society), have posited many interesting theories about exactly how and when human beings started using mushrooms as food, medicine, and a gateway to the divine.

edible bolete
Our relationship with mushrooms, edible and poisonous, is as old as time. Public Domain photograph.

Physical, literary, and artistic evidence of mushroom use in a variety of social contexts exists all around the globe, and it’s pretty clear that numerous ancient peoples used mushrooms in one way or another.  An exciting new discovery in this field has recently revealed that a paleolithic woman, nicknamed the “Red Lady of el Miron,” ate mushrooms before she was buried…nearly 19,000 years ago. The Red Lady’s story is intriguing to me, and it stands as the earliest physical evidence of Stone Age mushroom use, at least for now!

In addition to shedding some light on the Red Lady’s story, I wish to explore a few other bits of ancient and classical evidence of mushroom use in Europe and other parts of the world, and you can expect future posts to delve into those topics a bit more, for those who are interested in the historical context of mycophilia. I suspect that mushroom gathering was an important part of life for early peoples around the globe.

Meanwhile, the Red Lady, and the mystery surrounding her life and death, is intriguing because it hints at the possibility that VIPs in ancient times relied on my favorite organisms, the fungi, as a source of food and medicine. Read on for a snapshot of the research that sheds light on the Red Lady’s mysterious existence.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

The “Red Lady” of Cantabria, Spain

Red Lady dig in Cantabria, Spain
Archaeological dig at el Miron, a cave where the Red Lady was buried in Cantabria, Spain, 18,700 years ago. Photo by Gabinete de Prensa del Gobierno de Cantabria. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

In 2010, scientists discovered the remains of an ancient woman who was buried roughly 18,700 years ago in Cantabria, Spain. Cantabria is a province situated along the northern coast of the Iberian Peninsula that is renowned for being a region rich in Upper Paleolithic archaeological sites.

The woman was dubbed the Red Lady by researchers because she and a nearby stone were dusted in reddish ochre made from hematite. The cave where she was buried was named “el Miron,” and the place has some interesting features that imply that the people who knew the Red Lady held her in high esteem.

Although the identity of the Red Lady is not known for sure, there are a few clues that suggest that she was an important member of her community; not only was her burial site adorned with the pigment that gave her the name Red Lady, but there were also flowers in her tomb, and a carved grave marker near the entrance of the cave.

The exact burial rites that were performed for the Red Lady are unclear, but these signs of effort bespeak reverence and respect that her companions may have felt for her, as well as sadness at her passing. Some researchers have theorized that the Red Lady was a leader, whereas others posited that she may have been ritually sacrificed.

Magdalenian horse
This elegant and lifelike Magdalenian carving of a horse is one of the finest examples of art from the Upper Paleolithic. World Imaging. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

The Red Lady was a Magdalenian, which was a widespread and successful paleolithic culture that thrived for several thousand years in Western Europe. Many of the iconic cave paintings and carvings of early peoples in Europe were Magdalenian in origin, and from all appearances, they were a resourceful hunter-gatherer culture that formed villages throughout western Europe over the course of several millennia.

Their art indicates that they had significant time for leisure, and archaeologists and anthropologists believe that they largely sustained themselves by hunting reindeer, bison, red deer, and wild horses that roamed across the ancient landscape, supplemented by foraging and fishing. The Red Lady, who likely lived during the last Ice Age, offers us evidence that the Magdalenes also dabbled in (or more likely, delighted in) mycophagy, the practice of eating gourmet and medicinal mushrooms.

Although the Red Lady’s skeletal remains were disturbed by a wolf or another large animal during her many thousands of years of interment, archaeologists were able to recover a jaw bone and teeth, and this is where things get interesting, as far as the Red Lady’s diet is concerned. From all appearances, the Red Lady was between 35 and 40 years old when she died, and her remains suggest that she was in pretty good health and she had most of her teeth (which, in case you had not guessed, was a pretty significant feat in Upper Paleolithic times).

A team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany proceeded to remove and analyze hardened plaque from the Red Lady’s teeth in order to discover what she ate. In addition to remnants of plants and animals, confirming what experts already knew about the Magdalenian lifestyle and diet, the team also discovered mushroom spores of at least two types of fungi in the hardened calculus on the Red Lady’s teeth. They found evidence that the Red Lady had been eating some sort of gilled mushroom in the order Agaricales, as well as a spongy-capped member of the Boletaecea family.

It’s not currently known exactly which mushrooms the Red Lady ate, but nonetheless, this is a significant discovery and stands as the earliest evidence of wild mushroom consumption, and offers further evidence that people have been tapping into the primordial gifts of fungi for many thousands of years! It’s also intriguing in a way because the Red Lady’s formal burial site indicates that she was probably an important person in her community, perhaps a spiritual leader or healer. The grave stone that marks the Red Lady’s cave is adorned with a V-shaped carving that researchers believe is symbolic of the female anatomy, which hints at a cultural reverence for women in positions of leadership…but who knows?

The fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, was used by Koryak shamans in Siberia, and possibly other ancient cultures as well. Photo by Onderwijsgek. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Netherlands.
The fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, was used by Koryak shamans in Siberia, and possibly other ancient cultures as well. Photo by Onderwijsgek. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Netherlands.

Whether the Red Lady consumed mushrooms for their nutritional value, or perhaps was using them medicinally, remains a mystery, but I think it’s entirely possible that the Red Lady’s mushroom-eating was linked to the spiritual traditions of the Magdalenians. I will be very curious to see whether or not the mushroom spores found on the Red Lady’s teeth can be identified with more certainty, because that might tell us a lot about why she ate mushrooms.

For example, if we find out that the gilled mushroom was the fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, that would lend a lot of support to ethnomycological theories that ancient peoples consumed this hallucinogenic mushroom as part of religious and shamanistic practice. That bolete, however, was no doubt just a tasty bite from the forest!

Step Aside, Otzi the Iceman!

Up until this recent discovery about the Red Lady’s mushroom-eating ways, the earliest evidence of ancient people gathering mushrooms came from the discovery of Otzi the iceman, whose frozen-mummified remains were found by hikers in the Italian Alps in 1991. Otzi appeared to be a hunter-gatherer who died around 3,300 BC. In addition to a variety of survival equipment and tools, Otzi carried two polypore mushrooms with him.

Piptoporus betulinus
The birch polypore, Piptoporus betulinus. This mushroom has significant medicinal value and has been collected for thousands of years. Photo by Captailpixel. Public Domain photograph.

The first, Piptoporus betulinus, or birch bolete, has potent antibacterial qualities, and researchers who studied Otzi concluded that it’s likely that he used the fungus medicinally.

The second mushroom, Fomes fomentarius, also known as the tinder conk or tinder polypore, is a tough and woody mushroom that serves as an excellent fire-starter. Otzi’s mushrooms has aroused much excitement in the mycophile community over the years, because it’s clear that people have treasured mushrooms for various reasons over the millennia, and have helped dispel the myth that the only good use of a mushroom (as far as survival is concerned) is to use them as a food source.

Although Otzi’s remains are no doubt an important clue to how and when people started to gather mushrooms in Europe thousands of years ago, the Red Lady offers the world solid proof that mushroom hunting goes far further into the past than we ever imagined! In the past, the presumption was that mushrooms (and other foraged foods) were a relatively unimportant part of the paleolithic European diet.

Historically, experts believed that the Magdalenians and other ancient peoples were primarily hunters, with plants and other gathered foods being only a small portion of the human diet in that time and place. However, this supposition is being challenged left and right, and both Otzi and the Red Lady are compelling examples of how people had a far more rich and varied relationship with wild foods than we previously thought.


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