07 November, 2013
This year has brought a bumper crop of fruit, but it’s also been an excellent year for fungi. Although some fungi are poisonous, many people still gather and eat wild mushrooms – just like our forebears, for whom they were a valuable source of protein. Nowadays we use a fungus called Fusarium to produce Quorn, a popular food resource – but early people had other uses for fungi aside from food.
In 1991, a receding glacier in the Alps on the Austrian–Italian border gave up a secret it had been hiding for over 5,000 years. The body of a Neolithic hunter was found sticking out of the ice by a party of climbers.
Ötzi the Iceman, or Ötzi to his friends, died a violent death. He had been shot with an arrow, but was probably killed by a blow to the head. A lot of interest has been generated by his possessions, amongst which was a small pouch containing pieces of fungus. Analysis showed that this was Polyporus fomentarius. This is not a species you would want to eat, so what did he use it for?
P. fomentarius has many names, including tinder fungus, hoof fungus, tinder conk and tinder polypore. Polypore species produce very large fruit bodies, which are shaped like a horse’s hoof and vary in colour from a silvery grey to almost black, though they are normally brown.
The fungus grows on various broadleaved trees – mainly birch, which it infects through broken bark, causing rot. The species typically continues to live on trees long after they have died, changing from a parasite to a decomposer.
This versatile fungus has had several uses throughout history.
Haute Couture: Cut into slices, soaked for several days, then dried and beaten until soft, the fungus produces a felt-like mass of fibres that can be made into fabric. It can then be shaped and sewn into hats and other warm clothing.
Medicine: Historically the fungus was used to cauterise wounds, as a styptic to stop bleeding, as a diuretic and a laxative, and as a primitive antibiotic. The first written record of P. fomentarius was penned by Hippocrates (460–377 BC), who mentions its use for cauterising wounds and treating inflamed organs.
Fisherman’s Friend: Fly fishers carry chunks of dried hoof fungus, with which they can dry artificial flies to make them float.
But what about Ötzi the Iceman? He wasn’t making textiles or going fly fishing and, despite his dangerous lifestyle, he probably wasn’t planning on cauterising wounds on the go.
Ötzi’s stash is not, in fact, very difficult to account for. P. fomentarius has traditionally been used as the main ingredient of amadou, a material primarily used for tinder.
The fungus burns very slowly, so the pale leather-brown flesh could be used to start or transport fire. An ember embedded in a hole in the fungus would smoulder for a whole day, or even longer, providing a portable lighter for a fire. It was therefore invaluable for hunting or raiding parties, and Ötzi’s injuries suggest he may have been taking part in such a risky endeavour.