Humans and Fungus: Our Oldest Neighbor

Humans and Fungus: Our Oldest Neighbor

Anatomically modern humans may have existed on Earth for as long as 300,000 years. But we are the new kids on the block compared to mushrooms and other members of Kingdom Fungi. These ancient life forms have shaped the landscape and are an integral part of the web of life we all depend on. They are around us, on us, even inside us! Since prehistoric times, humans have made use of fungi for a wide range of purposes, and mushrooms will continue to play a role in the future of human life - and all life - on Earth.

The origins of fungus

Scientists estimate the origins of fungi at over one billion years ago, making them among the oldest life forms on earth. By 400 million years ago they were common on land, and form an integral part of the planetary web of life, breaking down organic matter into simple molecules that can be used by other organisms.

Early humanity and mushrooms

Fungi all around us

Our bodies are teeming with microorganisms of all kinds, including fungi. Several types of fungi live naturally on our hair, skin and even inside our gut. Modern medicine is just beginning to understand the complex ways that the fungi within our gut microbiome - known as the gut mycobiome - keep us healthy and regulate the other microorganisms that help us digest food.

Edible Mushrooms

Humans have been harvesting edible mushrooms for millenia, with archaeological evidence of mushroom consumption that dates back at least 13,000 years. With their high nutritional value and easy harvesting, mushrooms have long been enjoyed as a food source all over the world. Many societies in antiquity held mushrooms in high regard; among the ancient Egyptians and Romans, for example, certain mushrooms were delicacies reserved for the upper classes. 

Use of other fungus has shaped our diet, and our society, in profound ways. Without yeasts, which can ferment sugars into alcohol and make bread rise, early civilizations could not have sustained large urban centers.

Dangerous Fungi

Our relationship with Kingdom Fungi has its downsides, however. There are a large variety of fungi that pose health hazards to humans, whether from toxic molds or fungal pathogens that can be anywhere from irritating to life-threatening. And let us not forget that many mushrooms can be quite deadly to eat. Throughout history, the powerful toxins found in some mushrooms have been used as a poison.

Medicinal Mushrooms

Many societies have long touted the medicinal properties of certain mushrooms for all sorts of ailments, and mushrooms are commonly used in a variety of folk medicine traditions. Written records from ancient China, Greece and Egypt detail medicinal uses for mushrooms going back to at least 1550 BCE, and archaeological findings indicate humans were using mushrooms for medicine many thousands of years before that! While there are some traditional practices which have not yet been verified by modern science, it is true that many mushrooms contain healthful properties that have important medicinal applications.

Cultural influence of Psychedelic mushrooms on humanity

It is likely that our hominid ancestors were ingesting mushrooms with hallucinogenic properties as early as 5.3 million years ago, and many societies have used these intentionally for spiritual or religious purposes since time immemorial. Some anthropologists believe that consuming active mushrooms may have played a role in shaping the remarkable evolution of the human brain, as well as the development of human culture, group cohesion and early religious traditions.

Modern Uses of Mushrooms

These days, humans use fungi for many of the same purposes as our most ancient ancestors -  with a few innovations. As food, they are more popular than ever, whether you are making traditional cuisine or just trying to eat healthier. 

Modern medicines derived from various kinds of fungus have saved untold numbers of lives. Penicillin alone has saved as many as 200 million lives since it became widely available less than a century ago. And active mushrooms remain an important part of many peoples’ spiritual practices, with increasing acceptance of their potential as a part of modern mental health treatments.

Beyond medicine, fungi are also used in a dizzying variety of industrial applications, including modern textile production, the biofuel and chemical industries and many more.

The Future of Mushrooms

There are millions of species of fungus, but only about 100,000 that have been catalogued by modern science. As scientific discovery expands the boundaries of human knowledge and tries to solve important problems, mushrooms will no doubt play an important role.

Climate & Pollution

Did you know that some types of fungus can eat oil or plastic? Some fungi can absorb heavy metals and even radiation! Scientists are currently working on ways that fungi can help clean polluted soil and water, a process called bioremediation. From cleaning up oil spills to dealing with the microplastics in our environment, fungi are important allies in the fight for a cleaner future.

Increasingly, climate scientists are also acknowledging the important roles fungal networks play in keeping carbon sequestered in the soil, as well as replenishing depleted soil with the nutrients plants need to thrive.

Industry & Construction

Mycelium Bricks

On a planet with finite resources and increasing demand for carbon-conscious methods of construction and production, fungi are part of several emerging applications that show great promise. Research is being conducted on shaping certain mycelium into molds that can take any form, from bricks to furniture. Once dried, the result is a strong, lightweight and pest-resistant material which is 100% biodegradable.

Sustainable fashion

Several companies have developed fungi-derived materials with the look and feel of leather, silk and other materials, without the use of plastic. This has exciting implications for fashion, an industry infamous for animal cruelty and its disproportionate environmental impact. Fungus fashion could lead to greatly decreased demand for leather and with it, decreased production of industrial livestock, which accounts for between 11-20% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. 

Earth-friendly burials

In recent years, eco-friendly burial methods that embrace decomposition have become a popular alternative to traditional Western-style burials with their focus on preservation. A mushroom burial suit is a shroud lined with mushroom spores. The mushrooms in the shroud accelerate natural decomposition processes, and once broken down into simple molecules, the former human remains can then be returned to the soil.

Mushroom computers

For years, biologists have been studying the so-called “wood wide web”, the interconnectivity between living things in a biome facilitated by vast symbiotic networks of mycorrhizal fungi. These networks can connect the roots of trees and other plants, using electrical impulses to transfer water, nutrients, and other information across a vast and complex system. Scientists around the world have been exploring the possibility of using fungal mycelia to create living computers. Research is in its early stages, but early results suggest the possibility of creating fungus-based computers with vastly more computing power than is currently possible with silicon machines.



Mushrooms are an integral part of all life on Earth, and one of our oldest neighbors. Humans have depended on fungi for millennia, and no matter what the future holds, the destinies of humans and mushrooms are forever intertwined.