Use of Carrots by the Ancients

Carrot Use of Carrots by the Ancients


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Reference Material

It is said that temple drawings from Egypt in 2000 BC show what could be construed as a "carrot" shaped plant, which some Egyptologists believe could be a purple carrot. Egyptian papyruses containing information about treatments with seeds were found in pharaoh crypts, but there is no direct reference to carrot.

I have personally visited several tomb paintings in the Valleys of Luxor (ancient Thebes) and some of the images are fascinating, if dubious. It is known that ancient Egyptians did use other members of the Apiaceae (carrot) family including anise, celery and coriander. None of these plants would have been used as root crops, but were rather leaf, petiole or seed crops for medicinal purposes.

There is a clay tablet with cuneiform inscription is located in the British Museum. 67 plants are listed and appear in two columns, subdivided into groups, perhaps to represent plant beds. Only 26 plant names have been identified with certainty including leeks, onion garlic, lettuce, radish, cucumber, gherkin, cardamom, caraway, dill, thyme, oregano, fennel, coriander, cumin and fenugreek. Many remain to be identified. Carrot is currently not amongst those identified, though some of the above identified are umbellifers. If the carrot was used it would probably have been placed amongst the aromatic herbs along with fennel, suggesting that the root was discounted, using only the pleasantly scented flowers and leaves in cooking or medicine.

The main pieces of written evidence I have found are documented below. Having considered these I can only express the sentiment that although there is no absolute documentary evidence, there is a large amount of compelling information from various independent sources that the ancients used wild carrot seeds in cooking or medicine. I do believe that someone somewhere did witness a tomb painting which they considered a purple carrot - why would they make it up?

Although I am not convinced that Egyptians cultivated carrots to use the roots, nevertheless some wild roots are purple. The image would not have been a regular carrot shape as we know it. On balance of probabilities I believe the ancients did use wild carrot for aromatic/cooking/medicinal purposes.

The evidence however does appear compelling, that ancient civilisations (around 125 b.c.e.) did know about wild carrots and probably used their seeds for medicinal purposes. Certainly the Greeks used them, evidenced by the "pills" found in a Greek shipwreck in 1989, analysed in 2010 - http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/greekmedicine.html

REFERENCE WORKS -

O Banga, Origin of the European Cultivated Carrot, Institute of Horticultural Plant Breeding, Wageningen, 1956

There is no documentary or graphical evidence that the Ancient Egyptians had knowledge and use of carrots (either seeds, roots or leaves). Studies in the history of horticulture have not revealed any indication that, in the ancient civilizations of Asia Minor, Egypt and Greece, the carrot had any importance as a food crop. (references - G. Gibault, Histoire des legumes . Paris, Librairie Horticole, 1912.; U.P. Hedrick, U. P ., Sturtevant's Notes on Edible Plants . Albany, J. B. Lyon Co., 1919;  L Keimer, Die Gartenpflanzen im alten Agypten . Hamburg, Hoffmann and Campe, 1924)

Magnificent Mesopotamians by P S Quick 2015

Fruit and vegetables that needed more attention were grown in smaller plots or gardens. These included onions, turnips, leeks, beans, carrots, chick peas, lettuce, cucumbers and also fruits and vegetables such as apples, grapes, figs, dates and melons. They also gathered fruits, nuts and berries that grew in the wild.

In Ancient Mesopotamia By Elizabeth Scholl 2010

The early farmers learned to use the water from the rivers by digging canals to irrigate their crops. Mesopotamians grew grains such as barley and wheat; vegetables including onions, lettuce, carrots and cucumbers; fruits such as dates, figs, melons and pears.

Water Co-Management edited by Velma I. Grover, Gail Krantzberg  2013

This the case of the north-eastern plains of Mesopotamia. The Sumerian inhabitants who first settled along the Tigris and Euphrates needed irrigation to ferry water and grow food on fertile lands "between rivers". In addition to basic staples, such as wheat and barley, the inhabitants of the region farmed rye, oats, flax, alfalfa, plums, carrots, peas, lentils and beans (Diamond 1997 - Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies)

Technology and Science in Ancient Civilizations edited by Richard G. Olson 2009

What follows are lists of the most common foodstuffs that have been established either archeologically or from literary sources for each major civilization during its early years, supplemented by lists of major items appropriated through cultural exchanges at a later period but before the end of antiquity for each civilization. These lists have been compiled from the food texts in the bibliography. Where I am aware of disputes about whether a foodstuff was available or not, I have generally not included it. In many cases, those foods listed as indigenous came originally from elsewhere but were in place by the time that writing began and/or large cities came into existence.

In almost all cases, grains and vegetables were smaller, harder, differently coloured, and, in the case of vegetables, more bitter, than present day varieties. Classical Greece and Rome had access to almost all foodstuffs in use in Mesopotamia and Egypt, especially after Alexander the Great's conquests (by 323 B.c.a.) and the maximum extension of the Roman Empire (by 100 s.c.n.) respectively, so I have chosen to emphasize their indigenous foodstuffs and those that they consciously chose to adopt extensively. Mesopotamia: Original grains: einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, barley. Later additions: durum wheat, spelt wheat, bread wheat, millet.

Original vegetables: onions, lettuce, leeks, peas, beans (green, kidney), garlic, cabbage, cucumber, carrots, eggplant, radishes, beets, turnips, chickpeas, lentils. Original fruits: dates, apples, figs, pomegranates, apricots, cherries, pears, plums, quinces. Later additions: grapes. Original meats: sheep, goat, cattle, pig, ducks, geese, quail, fish (about 50 varieties), shellfish, locusts. Later additions: chicken. Dairy products: milk (lower class), butter, cheeses. Original other salt, flax seed, eggs, anise, asafoetida, bay, capers, coriander, cress, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, marjoram, mustard, mint, rue, saffron, sage, thyme. Later additions: sesame, olives, honey, pepper. Egypt: Original grains. emmer wheat, barley. Later additions: bread wheat, spelt wheat. Original vegetables: onions, garlic, leeks, water melons, squashes, cos lettuces, celery, papyrus, lotus, radishes, turnips, mustard greens, lentils, peas, chickpeas, lupines, fenugreek.

Later additions: fava beans. Original fruits: dates, grapes, pomegranates, figs, carobs. Original meats: pigs, sheep, goats, donkeys, cattle, ducks, pigeons, geese, game, freshwater fish, crocodiles. Later additions: chickens. Dairy products: none widely used. Original other salt, duck and goose eggs, linseed, honey, aniseed, asafetida, basil, chervil, cumin, dill, juniper, marjoram, mint, rosemary, rue, sage. Later additions: hens' eggs, olives, safflower, black pepper, cinnamon, coriander.

Turnips were widely used in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, though they were usually a food for the poor or for emergency use when other vegetables were not available. Carrots were widely known but not extensively used, and parsnips were known to the Romans but were not widely used in the ancient world. (Note carrots and parsnips were often inter-changeable)

Handbook of Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Stephen Bertman [Facts on File:New York NY] 2003 (p. 291-293)

The staple crop of ancient farmers around the world was always grain. In Mesopotamia, the chief crop was barley. Rice and corn were unknown, and wheat flourished on a soil less saline than exists in most of Mesopotamia. Thus barley, and the bread baked from its flour, became the staff of life. Mesopotamian bread was ordinarilly coarse, flat, and unleavened, but a more expensive bread could be baked from finer flour. Pieces of just such a bread were...found in the tomb of Queen Puabi of Ur, stored there to provide her spirit with sustenance in the afterlife.

Bread could also be enriched with animal and vegetable fat; milk, butter, and cheese; fruit and fruit juice; and sesame seeds....The gardens of Mesopotamia, watered by irrigation canals, were lush with fruits and vegetables...Among the fruits were apples, apricots, cherries, figs, melons, mulberries, pears, plums, pomegranates, and quinces. The most important fruit crop, especially in southern Mesopotamia, was the date. Rich in sugar and iron, dates were easily preserved. Like barley, the date-palm thrived on relatively saline soil and was one of the first plants farmers domesticated...As for vegetables, the onion was king, along with its cousin, garlic. Other vegetables included lettuce, cabbage, and cucumbers; carrots and radishes; beets and turnips; and a variety of legumes, including beans, peas, and chickpeas.

Curiously, two mainstays of the Mediterranean diet--olives and grapes...were seldom found in Mesopotamian cuisine...to appreciate Mesopotamian daily life our imagination must breath in the pungent aroma of the seasonings that once rose from ancient stoves and filled the air...Coriander, cress, and sumin; fennel, fenugreek, and leek; marjoram, mint, and mustard; rosemary and rue; saffrom and thyme...Cumin...Sheep played an important role in the Mesopotamian economy...Like goats and cows, ewes produced milk that was converted into butter and cheese, but sheep were also slaughtered for meat. Beef was in short supply...pork from pigs [suppelmentd]...Game birds, deer, and gazelle were hunted as well. On farms, domesticated geese and ducks supplied eggs...and from canals and private ponds, came some 50 types of fish, a staple of the Mesopotamian diet. Generally, meats were either dried, smoked, or salted for safekeeping, or they were cooked by roasting, boiling, broiling, or barbecuing.

Cooking in Ancient Civilizations By Cathy K. Kaufman 2006

The most widely consumed vegetables were onions, garlic and leeks. Other vegetables included ancient forms of lettuce, cabbage, cucumber, carrots, radishes, beets, turnips, lentils, chickpeas, broad beans and peas.


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