While it might be strange to consider the living landscape a technology, when a natural material is used as a tool that’s exactly what it is. And one of the oldest examples of organisms-as-technology is actually a fungus. Archeological evidence reveals that at least 7,000 years ago, humans were using several types of dried tree fungus for their fire-starting properties, or, in other words, as prehistoric tinder.
Fire was an essential element of early human evolution. Not only used for cooking, heat, and light, fire was also for social and ritual practices. To start and maintain a healthy fire requires not only a flame, but several types of fuel, including a highly combustible material that will glow and burst into flames under a shower of sparks. Dried tinder fungi are highly flammable, making them a perfect natural material for catching the sparks that fly when sedimentary rocks are struck against a material rich in iron, such as pyrite (which, like pyre and pyro, refers its fire-starting potential). Not only would the fungus catch a spark, but, like coal, the organic matter could burn for a prolonged period of time, making it ideal for lighting small pieces of kindling and, ultimately, a blazing fire.
Several types of fungus fall under the tinder umbrella and grow in forested regions in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. While some grow on dead tree trunks, such as those of birch and sycamore, others survive as parasites on living trees. Despite their sometimes fruity smell, the fungi are tough and inedible, a fact that tipped archeologists off that they must have had another function as a tool. The earliest stores of several kinds of flammable fungi were found in the the Neolithic community of La Draga (now the town of Banyoles in Catalonia). They were also discovered accompanying the famed 5,000-year-old mummy, “Ötzi the Iceman.” Ötzi carried a fungus known as “touchwood” or “punk” as part of his belongings, and while it may have ignited the perfect punky fire, even the best bit of tinder fungus couldn’t save him from millennia beneath the alpine ice.