Fungi in history

Fungi have existed on earth for millions of years – long before humans even got here. Dive into the fascinating story of fungi and how we have used them for brewing beer, making medicine, poisoning each other and making tasty food.


1.5 billion
years B.C.

Fungi begin to separate themselves from animals

Through evolution, all plants, animals, bacteria and fungi diversified from their common ancestors and developed into very specialized species. Around 1.5 billion years ago, fungi began to evolve away from animals and plants. However, the precise sequence of events and timeline are still a subject of debate as we constantly learn new facts about these prehistoric organisms from the likes of DNA and fossils from deep under the sea.

10,000 years B.C.

Humans start to brew alcohol using yeast, a type of fungi

Alcohol has always been an extraordinarily important part of civilization. Finds indicate that civilizations learned to brew alcohol before they invented the wheel — they had their priorities in the right order! Without actually knowing it, they were fermenting grain with the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. But, it would be a long time before humans discovered how alcohol was actually formed. As well as causing inebriation, alcohol also has useful antimicrobial properties. This is of major significance if, for example, clean drinking water is in short supply. Some believe that the reason humans began cultivating grain was purely for brewing alcohol, and not to eat it!

6,000 years B.C.

Fungi in religious rituals

Over time, many cultures have used hallucinogenic fungi in religious rituals in order to make contact with the gods. The Aztecs called these fungi “the flesh of the gods.” The fungi cause those who eat them to hallucinate and have supernatural visions. Cave paintings and statues give depictions of fungi used in such rituals.

3,000 years B.C.

The world’s largest organism “is born”

Between 2,000 and 8,500 years ago, a so-called honey fungus began to grow in Oregon. It now extends over an area as large as 1,350 football pitches and is therefore the world’s largest living organism — and perhaps also world’s oldest. This fungus has a destructive impact on trees that grow in its vicinity, but it also happens to be edible.

2,000 years B.C.

The ancient Egyptians uses yeast to make their bread rise

The ancient Egyptians discovered that if bread is left to rise it tastes better than the very compact flat bread. Certainly, in one instance, bread dough must have been left to stand in the warmth and had airborne baker’s yeast landed on it. This began to convert carbohydrates to carbon dioxide gas, which made the bread light and airy.

200 years B.C.

The Chinese begin to brew kombucha

Although kombucha may be regarded as originating from the latest health trends and various cafes in Vesterbro, the fermented tea spores may go back much further in time. In ancient China, “cha,” a type of tea, was already being fermented. China has always been known for its major tradition of natural medicine, and kombucha is considered to be healing and revitalizing. It is also said that the Japanese samurai filled their water bottles with kombucha to give them strength in combat!


Pope Clement VII dies from eating a fungus called the death cap

It is rumored that Pope Clement VII died after being poisoned by the death cap mushroom, Ammanita phalloides, which is world’s most poisonous mushroom. Throughout history, fungi have been blamed for many deaths. These include the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, and some believe that the Buddha himself also died after eating poisonous mushrooms!


Shakespeare writes about fairy rings

In his comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare refers to fairy rings. However, the British author was far from the only one who was fascinated by these mystical circles of mushrooms and dead grass. In many European cultures, there has been a great deal of superstition surrounding fairy rings, and they were seen by many as bringers of misfortune. It was believed they were created by dancing elves.


Humans start to grow mushrooms

Although humans have eaten fungi as far back as the Aztecs and Egyptians, it was not until the 1700s that we learned to cultivate mushrooms. A melon grower outside Paris found that champignon mushrooms grew on his compost heap after he had poured owater leftover from rinsing champignons. They became known as “Parisian mushrooms,” and the botanist Chambry discovered that the many caves around Paris offered perfect growing conditions. Over the next 200 years, mushroom cultivation in Paris’ catacombs became “big business” (until the Metro was built) and champignons were the height of fashion in sophisticated Parisian establishments. If you want to, you too can grow mushrooms!


Yeast is a living organism!

Before 1836, it was believed that yeast was not a living organism, but rather a chemical substance. However, round about this time, there was a major development in microscopes, and a number of scientists established that yeast was a living entity. Yet it would be another 150 years before people fully grasped what they were looking at. Researchers from that time believed that yeast consisted of “organized beings, which are probably of the vegetable kingdom.”


Yeast converts sugar to alcohol!

The renowned Louis Pasteur, “The Father of Microbiology,” discovered that yeast was responsible for the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohol. This process is called fermentation. In addition to this discovery, a wide range of breakthroughs in chemistry and biology are attributed to Pasteur — for example, vaccination, spontaneous generation and, funnily enough, pasteurization.


Lewis Carroll writes Alice in Wonderland

In the famous novel, Alice takes a bite of a fly agaric mushroom and then shrinks to a very small size so that she can go through a rabbit hole into another world. It is not known whether Carroll himself had experimented with mushrooms. Feeling that one is becoming either very large or very small is actually one of the known consequences of eating hallucinogenic mushrooms such as fly agaric — and it is known colloquially as Alice in Wonderland syndrome!

It is not only Alice who takes mushrooms! In 1985, Nintendo launched Super Mario, in which Mario also eats fly agaric mushrooms to gain super powers and become bigger.


Emil Christian Hansen isolates the first yeast cell

In Denmark, we too have a tradition of research into yeast. At Carlsberg’s laboratories, Emil Christian Hansen (not the pharmacist Christian Hansen who founded the firm of the same name) was the first to isolate a single yeast cell — and therefore also had the opportunity to give it a name. The species came to be known as Saccharomyces carlsbergensis and became hugely important in the brewing of beer and Carlsberg’s success. It therefore became possible to brew beer using the same yeast species each time, giving consistent quality. Carlsberg recently found an old bottle of beer from which it isolated the original strain of yeast (it had survived 133 years in the bottle!) and it has used this yeast to brew a limited number of beers.


Alexander Fleming discovers that bacteria from fungi can make penicillin. Millions of lives are saved

Alexander Fleming worked at a hospital in London. One day he returned from holiday to his laboratory and found a bacterial infection in almost all his samples — apart from the sample containing the fungus Penicillium notatum. The fungus had produced antibacterial substances. The rest is history and penicillin, which was the world’s first antibiotic, has since saved more than 200 million lives. But Fleming was possibly not the first to discover antibiotics. Spores from the past have shown that ancient civilizations had eaten plants from which we can now extract antibiotics. Could this be a clue to finding new antibiotics in a world where antibiotic resistance is becoming a bigger and bigger problem?


Fungi are classified as their own kingdom, separate from plants and animals

Until 1969, fungi were thought to belong to the realm of either plants or animals. They have things in common with both these kingdoms. But although you might think of them more as plants, they actually have more in common with animals. Because while fungi cannot move as animals do, unlike plants, they do not photosynthesize and are therefore, like animals, dependent on eating.


The world’s most expensive mushroom is sold

$330,000 — this is how much you could have expected to part with if you participated in the auction of the world’s most expensive mushroom in 2007. A casino owner from Macau bought the1.5 kilo white truffle at an auction, breaking the world record for the most expensive truffle ever sold. Truffles are highly valued because of their delicate taste and they are extraordinarily rare as they grow under the ground and cannot be cultivated. Specially trained pigs and dogs are therefore used to find them.


Taste your way through the history of mushrooms

Fungi do not just provide flavor. They have many uses, and can give food new structure, impact and sensation. If you would like to taste how fungi have been used throughout history, here are a couple of suggestions:

Tasting fungi


The ancient Egyptians discovered that if bread is allowed to stand in warmth, yeast cells of the species Saccharomyces cerevisiae convert some of the carbohydrates in the flour to CO2. This is a gas and therefore creates air holes, causing the dough to expand! If the dough also contains sour dough, lactic acid bacteria produce lactic acid, which imparts a mild sour taste.


Beer is made from grain, typically barley, which is broken down and fermented to alcohol, termed ethanol, and CO2 by the yeast species Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The CO2 becomes dissolved in the drink and creates a sparkle. Carlsberg has recently launched a new beer called “1883” that is brewed from their original yeast strain from the same year, which marked one of the major breakthroughs in the brewing of beer.

Lambic beer

Belgian lambic beer uses an alternative to Carlsberg’s highly controlled brewing process. The beer is only produced in Payottenland in Belgium. It is only in this area where the mixture of microorganisms in the air is perfect for this beer. The fermentation takes place in open vessels, so airborne organisms fall into the vessel and create the beer! Researchers have found more than 100 different yeast strains in a batch of lambic beer! It is primarily Brettanomyces, which give the beer its sour taste.


Of course, the pleasure of tasting the world’s most expensive mushroom does not come cheap, but fortunately, it will not cost you $330,000. With a helping of truffle oil, you can experience the fantastic perfumed taste of this small mushroom. In ancient times, people believed truffles were children of the soil and were brought into being by thunder and lightning. And in the Renaissance period, just as today, truffles were a food for kings and the nobility.


You will not find many foods with as many nuances as wine. This is largely due to the advanced biochemical processes that occur during its production. Sugar-containing grape juice is fermented by yeast, converting it into wine. All the various nuances of flavor, for instance, result from the yeast’s growing conditions and the combination of different yeast strains that are found in a particular geographical area.


Champignons are one of the few edible fungi that one can cultivate, which is why they have become so popular. In the 1700s, the catacombs in Paris were full of champignons and people flocked to the gastronomic capital for the Champignons de Paris. When you eat a champignon, you are eating the fruiting body of Agaricus bisporus.

Activity: Dive into the history of fungi

Research one of the milestones of fungi and prepare a quick presentation. It is time to test out your presentation skills.