The Periodical Pickle
Can you imagine a world without onions? It makes us cry just thinking about it! The onion has played a critical role over the course human history, not only in food, but also in medicine and religion. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, onions are part of our DNA as humans.
The origins of the first onions remain a mystery with many layers. Many archaeologists believe wild onions grew native to central Asia, while other research suggests onions grew first in Iran and West Pakistan. Paleoarcheobotanists* have discovered traces of onions in the remains of human settlements dating back to 5,500 BC in China, Egypt, and India. This geographic range shows the onion was widespread by then, so it’s likely that prehistoric humans were eating wild onions thousands of years before that!
--no wonder they became a popular crop back then; onions could be stored for long periods, added much-needed flavor to otherwise bland foods (long before spices were widely available), and grew well under many different conditions.
While many cultures used onions as food and medicine, the ancient Egyptians took their admiration for onions to another level. It’s not an overstatement to say that onions were revered in ancient Egypt, holding deep spiritual power and meaning. Researchers believe the round shape and concentric rings symbolized eternal life to the ancient Egyptians. Onions were depicted in paintings on ancient pyramid walls and used in religious and funerary ceremonies. They were even a part of mummification! In one extraordinary example, the preserved mummy of King Ramesses IV was buried with onions in his eye sockets. According to researchers at the Global Egyptian Museum, “The king's eyes were replaced by artificial ones made of small onions, a unique case in mummification. In addition, each nostril was covered with the skin of an onion; it is possible that onions were used for their well-known antiseptic qualities.” Wow!
The oldest written recipes, carved on clay tablets dating to 1730 BC Mesopotamia, are full of onions. For example, one of the “recipes” that’s been translated from the ancient Akkadian language reads, “Meat is used. You prepare water. You add fine-grained salt, dried barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot, and milk. You crush and add leek and garlic.” With onions, shallots, leeks, and garlic, that’s almost all the alliums in one dish!
For my next post, we will pick up on the history of the onion with its proliferation around the ancient world in the 1st millennia B.C.
* What the heck is a paleoarcheobotanist? These are archeologists who specialize in the study of ancient plant remains and investigate the ways humans have interacted with plants throughout time. Sounds like a very cool job!