Forests have been one of humanity’s most valuable assets for thousands of years. From food to art to science, even politics and religion, somewhere along the line a famous tree has been involved and today they’re paying the price – many are now endangered, and entire ancient forests have been wiped out.
But there’s hope. Among the ongoing devastation, not only are we starting to see ancient trees being brought back to life, whole forests are being replanted. Without further ado, I give you a brief history of the world as told by its most famous ancient trees.
No, we’re not talking Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden here, but scientists do believe that apples marked the beginning of cultivation over 4,000 years ago and the original wild ancestors can still be found growing in the woodlands of southern Kazakhstan today. But apples weren’t only there to witness the birth of cultivation, the one at Woolsthorpe Manor is the very same tree that inspired Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. Coincidentally, the name of the guy studying Kazakhstan’s wild apples is… Adrian Newton.
From food and science, we’re now onto art. 11,000 years ago, a 159 year-old tree was cut down and carved into a 17ft statue now known as the Shigir Idol. It was found preserved in a peat bog in Siberia and although we’re not sure what kind of tree it is made of, as the world’s oldest known wooden sculpture, it is mighty impressive.
Real or imagined, trees have a prominent place in myth, legend and folktales. The Norse god Odin hung himself from Yggdrasil, an ash tree that connects the nine realms, while in English folktales Robin Hood and his Merry Men famously used the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest as their hideout.
Unsurprisingly, trees like the Dodana Oak, have also been witness to moments of religious wonder, but perhaps none so great as the Sacred Fig growing at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya. It’s a direct descendant of the original Bodhi tree where Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, achieved enlightenment.
While many people avoid bringing up politics out of politeness, trees have no such qualms. The Ankerwycke Yew is 1,400 years old and witnessed such notable political events as the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and, 300 years later, the meeting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
Of course, trees haven’t only witnessed humanity’s greatest moments – they’ve also witnessed some of the worst. The Boab Prison Tree in Wyndham, Western Australia, was a hollow tree that police used as a lockup for Aboriginal prisoners in the 1890s. Also known as the Hillgrove lockup, it held up to 30 prisoners at a time.
Before the invention of paper as we know it, the Egyptians used papyrus, the Mesopotamians used clay tablets, and the Russians used birch bark scrolls. Archaeologists found records of business transactions, demands for payment of debts, inventories of goods, accusations of crimes, convoluted discussions of legal disputes, personal letters among family and friends, even love letters. “Marry me,” a man named Mikita wrote to a woman named Anna on one of them sometime between 1280 and 1300, “I want you, and you me.”
Archaeologist Peter Schmidt has long said that the Haya people in Tanzania were the first to forge steel. While he was learning about their oral traditions, he was led to a tree that was said to be the symbolic centre of ironmaking and to rest upon the spot of an ancestral furnace. It led to the discovery of 13 furnaces carbon dated to 2,000 years ago.
The Cedars of God are a 205 acre grove that represents one of the last vestiges of the extensive cedar forests that once thrived across Mount Lebanon. The timber was plundered by pretty much everyone, including the Phonecians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians and Ottomans, mostly for shipping. As humans took to the seas, forests across Europe suffered a similar fate.
Deforestation doesn’t have to be the end of the line. Take the case of the Judean Date Palm, which had been wiped out by 500AD. But then archaeologists found a 2,000 year old jar of seeds. Feeling lucky, they planted one and it grew!
Costa dos Castros on the Atlantic coast of Spain was first settled 3,000 years ago. Though its forests survived the arrival of the Romans, and later the medieval Castillian kings, it was nearly wiped out in the 1940s, but the local community is banding together to bring it back to life, and you can help by donating a tree!
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