Carrot History - Origins and Development

Carrots History - The Early Years

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Origins and Development - Neolithic to AD 200

Chapters in the history rooms:

 History Part 1 - A Brief Timeline

 History Part 2 - Neolithic to AD 200 - Origins and development

 History Part 3 - AD 200 to 1500 - From Medicine to Food

 History Part 4 - 1500 to 1700 - Evolution and Improvement in the Renaissance

 History Part 5 - 1700 to 1900 - Science & Enlightenment - the modern carrot evolves

 History Part 6 - 1900 to date - The Modern Carrot and Genetic Discovery

 History of Carrot Colour - The road to domestication and the origin of Orange Carrots

 History in WW2 - Takes an in depth look of the role of carrots in World War Two, reviving its popularity

 Illustrations of Carrot in Ancient Manuscripts and Early Printed Books

 "If History without Chronology is dark and confused, Chronology without History is dry and insipid." - Abiel Holmes.

The Beginnings - carrot leaves - used medicinally in ancient timesA rich association has existed between people and roots throughout the centuries and before the development of "civilized" societies. This relationship was most often one of dependence on found roots as a source of food, then medicine. Sometimes because of their appearance, colour, odour or actual (or perceived) medicinal properties roots were given a special importance by ancient peoples. In the case of carrots it was the reverse and they were initially used for the medicinal properties of their seeds.

The Wild carrots have been present and used by Europeans since prehistoric times, but the garden carrot was unknown in Europe until the later Middle Ages. The Wild Carrot is the progenitor (wild ancestor) of the domestic carrot. It is clear that the Wild Carrot and Domestic Carrot are the same species but Botanists have failed to develop an edible vegetable from the wild root and when cultivation of garden carrots lapses a few generations, it reverts to its ancestral type. In 1842 French botanist M Vilmorin submitted a paper to the Horticultural Society of London which claimed to have produced a viable, cultivated carrot from wild plants in four generations. The experiment was never repeated and it is thought that the "wild" plants used had previously been hybridised in nature with cultivated carrots. (Banga 1957) Read more here - Vilmorin paper).

To unravel the long history of the Carrot you have to go back a very long way. Fossil pollen from the Eocene period (55 to 34 million years ago) has been identified as belonging to the Apiaceae family (the carrot family).  It is considered that the carrot dates back about 5,000 years ago when the root was found to be growing in the area now known as Afghanistan. It is said that Temple drawings from Egypt in 2000 BC show a carrot shaped plant, which some Egyptologists believe could have been a purple carrot. Although Egyptian papyruses containing information about treatments with seeds from plants were found in pharaoh crypts there is no direct or documentary reference to carrot.

A domesticated carrot seed is virtually indistinguishable from a wild carrot seed and will not tell how the root was shaped or even its colour. Unfortunately, seeds are mostly what one has to work with from ancient or medieval sites.

Wild carrot is more in evidence than cultivated carrots in classical sources. They had edible leaves and thin, strong tasting white roots which were prescribed for medicinal purposes. Names include Greek keras, staphylinos agrios, daukos and Latin daucus, pastinaca rustica. According to Pliny (Roman historian) and Dioscorides (a pharmacologist in Rome) these had aphrodisiac properties. (References:Dioscorides MM 3,35;Pliny NH 19,89, also 20.30-2 citing ‘Orpheus’, also 25.110-12;Galen SF 12.129)

An early form of carrot began to be cultivated in the last few centuries BCE. It is first mentioned in the 3rd century BCE by Diphilus of Siphnos. It was claimed to be diuretic; it was also juicier and more digestible than the parsnip. This carrot was not red (or orange), it was whitish (an early variant of Wild carrot?) and understandably confused with parsnip as the same plant. The “redness” feature is thought to have emerged in varieties developed in post classical times, after hybridisation with a central Asian species in the early Middle ages. The first European author who mentions red and yellow carrots is the Byzantine dietician Simeon Seth, in the 11th century.

(Source - Food in the Ancient World from A to Z - Page 75 Andrew Dalby · 2013)

(references: Dioscorides MM 3,57, E 2.101;Galen AF 6.654, SF 11.862; Athenaeus D citing Diphilus of Siphnos (karo); Simeon Seth p35 Langkavel)

Carrots and Parsnips - Historians believe the ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated carrots, they are mentioned by Pliny the Elder and were prized by the Emperor Tiberius. However most ancient writings from Asia Minor, Greece and Rome do not mention carrots specifically, even though wild carrots have a long history of presumed medicinal use. Parsnip is often mentioned in the writings and often the words for parsnip and carrot were initially interchangeable. In classical writings both vegetables seem to have been sometimes called pastinaca yet each vegetable appears to be well under cultivation in Roman times.

Throughout the Classical Period and the Middle Ages writers constantly confused carrots and parsnips and often treated them as the same plant. This may seem odd given that the average modern carrot is about seven inches long and bright orange while a parsnip is off white/ivory, usually fatter and can grow up to 3 feet, but this distinction was much less obvious as wild carrots were also an off white colour (or purple) during these periods before early modern plant breeders got to work. It is thought that the orange carrot was not developed and stabilised until the 1500's, probably in the Low Countries. Its original colour varied between dirty white and pinkish purple. Both vegetables have also got much fatter and fleshier in recent centuries, and parsnips may have been bred to be longer as well. In other words early medieval carrots and parsnips were both thin and woody and mostly of a vaguely whitish colour. This being the case, almost everyone up to the early modern period can perhaps be forgiven for failing to distinguish between the two, however frustrating this may be for the food historian.  (The Road to Domestication and the colour orange is discussed here with some compelling images from way before 1500).

The plants were not confused on purpose, but since we have in many cases only the written word, if the Medieval writer called plants "pastinaca", without reference to colour in particular, it is impossible to know with certainty if they were carrots or parsnips.

The word "carrot" was first recorded in English around 1530 and was borrowed from Middle French carotte, itself from the Latin carōta, from Greek καρωτόν karōton. In Old English, carrots (typically white at the time) were not clearly distinguished from parsnips, the two being collectively called moru or more (from Proto-Indo-European) *mork- "edible root", German for carrot is Möhre). Various languages still use the same word for "carrot" as they do for "root"; e.g. in Dutch it is wortel.

Etymology of the name "Karota" and then "Carrot" is discussed in detail in this page.

Early beginnings - It is believed that the Carrot originated some 5000 years ago in Middle Asia around Afghanistan, and slowly spread into the Mediterranean area. The first recorded carrots (ad 900 Afghanistan) were mainly purple or yellow, with some black - not orange. The Orange colour, so familiar today, was not clearly mentioned until the 1500's although some interpretations of early manuscripts and drawings therein, leave that possibility open.

Ancient Civilisations - there has been long standing debate as to whether the ancients were aware of, or used carrots (roots, leaves, flowers or seeds)

The main pieces of written evidence I have found are documented here -

Having considered these carefully, 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 could be 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 tomb painting/image often cited 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 -

Ancient Egypt -

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.( Sources: O Banga, Origin of the European Cultivated Carrot, Institute of Horticultural Plant Breeding, Wageningen; 1956; Gibault, Georges, Histoire des legumes . Paris, Librairie Horticole, 1912; Hedrick, U. P ., Sturtevant's Notes on Edible Plants . Albany, J. B. Lyon Co., 1919; Keimer, L ., Die Gartenpflanzen im alten Agypten . Hamburg, Hoffmann and Campe, 1924)

Many history books claim that the Ancient Egyptians grew carrots. This "illustration" from the Valley of the Nobles shows, or makes a guess, as to why previous writers have made erroneous assumptions that they depict carrots. (highlighted in the centre, below the amphora)

Egytptian Temple Drawing - Valley of the Nobles

The images depict items which on first inspection appear to look like modern day carrots, There is however no documentary or other evidence that the Ancient Egyptians cultivated carrots. The swollen taproot we know today did not appear until very much later than the ancient Egyptian period. The first evidence of carrot used as a food crop is in the Iranian Plateau and the Persian Empire in the 10th century AD (Brothwell & Brothwell 1969). It is likely that the climate and environment in Egypt was suitable to grow carrots, though not ideal. However proof that carrots could grow in Egypt and its surrounding countries eg Syria and Iraq, does not mean they DID grow there.

Many history books mention "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". Just to repeat there is no direct reference to carrot. The Carrot Museum has visited several tomb paintings in the Valleys of Luxor (ancient Thebes) and some of the images are compelling. 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.

Babylonia/Mesopotamia (modern Iraq)

Babylonia was a state in ancient Mesopotamia. The city of Babylon, whose ruins are located in present-day Iraq, was founded more than 4,000 years ago as a small port town on the Euphrates River. It grew into one of the largest cities of the ancient world under the rule of Hammurabi.

Carrots are said to have been recognised as one of the plants in the garden of the Babylonian King Marduk-apla-iddina, the Biblical Merodach-Baladan ll, who reigned at Babylon in 721–710 and 703 BC. There is no documentary evidence for this carrot reference. 

The 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. The tablet also lists utensils and personnel in the garden. 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.


This tablet lists the plants in the garden of King Marduk-apla-iddina, the Biblical Merodach-Baladan, including onions, garlic, leeks, lettuce, cucumbers, and turnips, as well as mint, cress, thyme, and coriander.

The plant called "slave girl-buttock" remains unidentified. From Suthern Mesopotamia, Iraq. Reign of Marduk-apla-iddina, 721-710 BCE and 703 BCE. (The British Museum, London)

Source - Amin, Osama S. M. "List of Plants in the Garden of Marduk-apla-iddina." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified April 14, 2016.

babylon tablet

(click image for larger version)

The exact lineage of carrots remains difficult to trace as it was often confused by early horticulturalists who used the name "pastinaca" for either carrot or the parsnip, its close relative.

Since most vegetables leave little archaeological trace, it is difficult to construct a complete picture of what was grown in prehistoric times. Many of those recorded in classical literature are likely to have been grown in earlier times, and green and root vegetables native to Europe were gathered long before they were brought into cultivation. Occasional discoveries of seeds show that cabbages were grown in southern England in the Bronze Age and oil-seed rape, turnips, and carrots in the Iron Age; celery, carrots, cabbages, and turnips were also among the plants used by the Neolithic and Bronze Age inhabitants of the Swiss lake villages.

Carrot seeds have been found in prehistoric Swiss lake dwellings in Ronbenhausen giving clear evidence of human consumption. There is however no evidence of cultivation at this stage, more likely they simply collected and used for medicinal purposes. Similar findings appear also in ancient Glastonbury in the UK. Neolithic people savoured the roots of the wild carrot for its sweet, succulent flavour.

5th century bc - Rhaphanidosis is the act of inserting the root of a plant of the genus Raphanus (commonly known as a radish) into the anus. A carrot was also used when radish was not available. It is mentioned by Aristophanes as a punishment for adultery in Classical Athens in the fifth and fourth century BC. (included in a scene in the Clouds where Aristophanes refers to an adulterer being punished by the insertion of a radish into his anus). It is also allegedly a punishment for other sex-related crimes, such as promiscuity and homosexuality. Radishes were larger in those days - ouch!! Nigette Spikes states that when enforced as a capital punishment, tubers so deposited were chosen to be as rough as possible so as to cause death by internal haemorrhaging. Historians have questioned the idea that these comic forms of abuse were carried out in reality, whilst others have argued that the reason that these jokes had such longevity in comedy was precisely because they were a reflection of reality. (References - Spikes, Nigette M. (2014). Dictionary of Torture. Abbott Press. p. 98. ISBN 978-1-45821-791-2;   Cohen, David (1991). "Sexuality, Violence, and the Athenian Law of Hubris". Greece & Rome. 38 (2): 176. doi:10.1017/S001738350002355X..)

One of the first written pieces of evidence come from Theophrastus (371-287bc) - the father of botany. His two surviving botanical works, Enquiry into Plants and On the Causes of Plants, were an important influence on medieval science. Theophrastus states, in the ninth book of his History of Plants, that "carrots grow in Arcadia, but that the best are found in Sparta".  Much of the information on the Greek plants may have come from his own observations, as he is known to have travelled throughout Greece, and to have had a botanical garden of his own; but the works also profit from the reports on plants of Asia brought back from those who followed Alexander the Great:

Theophrastus, also, mentions the carrot. Phaenias, in the fifth book of his work On Plants, writes as follows: "With respect to the qualities of its seed, the so called seps and the seed of the carrot." And in the first book he says:"Umbelliferous types of seeded plants are found in anise, fennel, carrot, bur-parsley (wild cabbage?), hemlock, coriander, and squill, which some call mouse-bane."

(evidently from a list of antidotes; carrot-seed is here mentioned as a cure for the bite of the seps, a kind of lizard-snake. Nic. Ther. 843, Diosc. III.54 (59).

Archaeobotanists have discovered plant DNA in Greek-made pills found in a shipwrecked merchant trading vessel dated to 130BDC. Archaeological researchers have started to analyse the drugs, in the form of clay pills, found on board. Using the GenBank genetic database as their guide, they have found that the pills appear to contain carrot, parsley, radish, alfalfa, chestnut, celery, wild onion, yarrow, oak, and cabbage.It is believed the plants were used by doctors to treat intestinal disorders among the ship's crew. Such remedies are described in ancient Greek texts, but this is the first time the medicines themselves have been discovered. Read more here.

Geneticist Robert Fleischer of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park says that many of the ingredients match those described in ancient texts. Yarrow was meant to slow blood coming from a wound, and carrot, as described by Pedanius Dioscorides, a pharmacologist in Rome, was thought to ward off reptiles and aid in conception. Read more here.

Early written references come from the early Romans. Mithridates VI, King of Pontius (120bc-63bc) was in constant fear of poisoning. The king is said to have taken a potion daily, to render his body safe against danger from poison, this contained the seeds of the Cretan carrot.

He concocted one of the most well-known antidotes in antiquity, called mithridatium, possibly with the help of his court physician Crateuas. Experimenting with different formulations and trying them out on condemned prisoners, he compounded various antidotes to produce a single universal one, which he hoped would protect him against any poison. A hundred years after the death of Mithridates, Celsus (see below) recorded the formulation, which comprised thirty-six ingredients, all of which are derived from plants, except for honey to mix them and castor to enhance the aroma. The concoction is estimated to have weighed approximately three pounds and to have lasted for six months, taken daily in the amount the size of an almond.  Celsus said "Against poisoning, a piece the size of an almond is given in wine. In other affections an amount corresponding in size to an Egyptian bean is sufficient. "

Krateuas (Crateuas) 120 B.C. was physician in ordinary to Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus (died 63 B.C.). Krateuas described and illustrated plants. Some fragments of his writings have been recognised in the Anicia Codex of Dioscorides in the Vienna State Library to which reference has been made later in the Carrot Museum - the first Orange carrot illustration.

An examination of the pharmacology of Mithridates' original formulation shows a conscious effort to select plants thought to be useful, many of which have a strong scent and are from the family Apiaceae: Cretan carrot, assafoetida ("gum"), galbanum, sagapenum, opopanax, parsley, anise, hartwort ("saxifrage"). They have subsequently been proved to reduce inflammation.

King Mithridates is said to have taken it daily in an attempt to render his body safe against danger from poison. This worked, and when he tried to poison himself (rather than be slain by his enemies through the sword) his suicide attempt failed, as he had previously, over many years, dosed himself with his "antidote".!!

Celsus was a Roman encyclopaedist, known for his medical work, De Medicina, which is believed to be the only surviving section of a much larger encyclopaedia. The De Medicina is a primary source on diet, pharmacy, surgery and related fields, and it is one of the best sources concerning medical knowledge in the Roman world.   It is a disputed question whether the author of the work was a practising physician or not. It may be remarked in passing that in ancient times there was not such a sharp distinction between the professional and the amateur as there is today. The amount of medical knowledge was not so great as to be out of the range of an ordinary, educated man of average intelligence. On the one hand, it may be said that a work so complete and so accurate as the De Medicina must have come from the pen of a man with professional experience.  On the other hand, several reasons may be urged making the other view more probable.

The seeds of Daucus Creticus; Athaminta Gretensis, Cretan or Candy carrot is mentioned in an ingredient of an antidote,( II. 56). It also included, amongst other things,  poppy, parsley, pepper, acacia and saxifrage. The ingredients were pounded and taken up in honey.

"Against poisoning, a piece the size of an almond is given in wine. In other affections an amount corresponding in size to an Egyptian bean is sufficient."

Read more about the pills containing crushed carrots, first found in 1974 in a Greek shipwreck from around 125 BC.

Celsus  -

"The most famous antidote is that of Mithridates, which that king is said to have taken daily and by it to have rendered his body safe against danger from poison. It contains costmary 1.66 grams, sweet flag 20 grams, hypericum, gum, sagapenum, acacia juice, Illyrian iris, cardamon, 8 grams each, anise 12 grams, Gallic nard, gentian root and dried rose-leaves, 16 grams each, poppy-tears and parsley, 17 grams each, casia, saxifrage,