Trees have played an important part in the development of mankind. Trees were used by our ancestors for shelter, warmth, food and for many other uses. One family of tree has separated itself from the rest when it comes to its place in the history of mankind and it is venerated by religions and is found over much of the world. It is the fig tree. While Aged Woods does not use fig wood it is important to note the place of trees in the history of mankind.
There are around 800 different species of fig in the world and the tree thrives in warmer climates like tropical rainforests. It is believed that the fig tree has been on the Earth for at least 60 million years and it could be as long as 80 million years so this tree may have been on the planet at the same time as the dinosaurs. The fig produces a small fruit which are a key part of the diet for small mammals and birds in the rainforest. It may have been the first plant species bred for agriculture over 11,000 years ago with remains of the tree having been found in the Middle East dating to about 9,400 BC. The wood was also used for mummy caskets in Egypt and was a mainstay in their culture. Pharaohs took dried figs with them to the grave believing that it would sustain their soul in the afterlife. It is also believed that the fig tree was a mainstay in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Greeks and Romans believed that the fig was a gift sent to them by the gods and when Alexander the Great arrived in India in 326 BC he enjoyed the shade of fig trees.
Alexander the Great was not the first to sit beneath a fig tree. The fig is one of the dominant trees in India and it was under this tree that Buddha achieved enlightenment. That tree, the Bodhi Tree, was preserved until it was cut down by a vengeful queen who believed her husband loved the tree more than her. Another Indian king, Ashoka, bestowed kingship on a branch of the tree that was sent to Sri Lanka and openly wept as it was transported down the Ganges. Buddhists, Hindus and Jains revere the fig tree and have sung hymns about the tree for 3,500 years.
The banyan fig is often times placed at the center of creation stories because the tree is so large with so many branches it can resemble a forest from a distance. The roots of the tree grow from the branches and can grow as thick as oak trees. Because of this they are able to support massive branches making the tree a true giant. One banyan fig in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh is said to be immortal and another fig in the state of Andhra Pradesh can supposedly shelter 20,000 people under its branches.
The fig may have also played a more prominent role in mankind’s history. It is possible that by eating high-energy figs our ancestors were able to develop larger brains. Another theory espouses that our hands evolved the way they did because of the way our ancestors accessed the fruit. Some of our ancestors even trained monkeys to climb into the tree and harvest the fruit for them in Egypt. The fruit was believed to have healing powers and one instance appears in the Bible when King Hezekiah of Judah was on death’s door with plague but recovered when the Prophet Isaiah ordered that fig paste be applied to his skin (2 Kings 20). Medicines have been developed from its fruit, the bark, roots and leaves. It has even been observed that chimpanzees in Uganda eat the bark and leaves and it has been concluded that they are self-medicating.
In more modern times the fig has become a national symbol. The strangler fig was placed on the coat of arms of both the nations of Indonesia and Barbados. For Indonesia the numerous roots represent the different islands that make up the nation. In the case of Barbados it was the first thing that Portuguese explorer Pedro Campos saw when he arrived at the island in 1536.
This fig has hidden ancient ruins and have protected them from tomb robbers and thanks to their discovery (sometimes by accident) our knowledge of ancient cultures has been expanded. It was common to find ruins in the Indus Valley in Asia but the fig has more famously hidden ancient Mayan ruins in the Yucatan in Mexico and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It is easy to see how this can happen by just looking at the largest fig tree in the world called The Wonderboom outside of Pretoria, South Africa which covers a 50 meter wide area and comprises 13 different trunks.
When Krakatoa erupted in 1883 all life on that island was destroyed. The first species to repopulate was the fig tree. Scientists are now using figs to replace rain forest decimated by logging. It is quite possible that as our climate changes that a key ingredient to reversing the trend may lie with the fig tree.
Fig trees are not typically large enough or grow consistently enough to be used for reclaimed wood for hardwood floors (and hence are not marketed by companies like Aged Woods) but it is used for furniture and artwork amongst other things. Some species are toxic to work with, which may explain why these trees are left alone and have been worshipped over time.
Is there a more important tree in world history?