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First published: October 2000

Ancient Gardens

by Michael Sones

The Mixtec Indians of Oaxaca, in Mexico, were renowned as potters, goldsmiths, and architects. One of their creation myths tells of the time before there was time and the world was in utter darkness, chaos, confusion and covered with water. A god and goddess had two male children who, for their pleasure, planted a garden with trees, flowers, roses, and many kinds of herbs.

There are obvious similarities with the story of the creation as written in Genesis. The notion of the world beginning in darkness, water, and confusion almost certainly refers to our primordial beginnings at the dawn of life on the earth and the emergence of life from the oceans. It also probably refers to the beginning of everyone in the undifferentiated watery darkness of the womb and our emergence through birth into the light of day.

Gardens seem to figure prominently in ancient civilised peoples' myths about the origin of the world. This may be because having a pleasure garden not only signifies the control and cultivation of Nature, implying the differentiation of man from Nature, but also means having sufficient time free from the necessities of having to hunt, gather, and farm to acquire sufficient food on which to live. Ornamental gardens in which plants are grown for enjoyment were originally for the royalty and nobility and have a very ancient history. While Nature is a source of power to primitive peoples we moderns all too easily forget what a great source of anxiety it also is. Man is at the mercy of the elements and prey to the wild beasts such as the jaguar and polar bear. While the natural world is beautiful feeling that we can control it, that it no longer grows wild and that sacrifices will bring the spring rain so that the crops will grow, eased our anxieties.

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One of the first known uses of flowers is on a Neanderthal grave, dated at over 60,000 years ago, in the Shanidar Cave in Zagros mountains of Iraq. Nine Neanderthal skeletons were found there. One of the skeletons revealed signs of serious but healed injuries and indicate that the man could only have survived by others in the group assisting him. Pollen analysis revealed that the body of another young man had been placed on a bed of flowers some of which were hollyhocks. It has been suggested that the perfume given off by the flowers helped to cover the odor of the decomposing corpse.

For most of time our ancestors have been hunter-gatherers. Remains from sites excavated by archaeologists indicate animals, bird, fish, and shellfish were the primary diet. Gathered vegetables such as the radish, turnip, and onion were also eaten. Controlled fire made its appearance on the scene anywhere up to 1.7 million years ago which increased the range of foods which could be eaten. There is an 18,000 year old site in Wadi Kubbaniya, to the west of the Nile Valley. Cooked plant remains have been found there and it is suggested these were the remains of a vegetable mash to feed weaning infants. In Syria, between 20-10,000 years ago over 150 edible plants have been identified along with primitive mortar and pestles for grinding the food. Primitive grinders and pestles have been found dating back more than 44,000 years in the Ukraine.

However, while our original interest in plants was undoubtedly as a source of food it does not mean that flowers were not found beautiful. Finding flowers beautiful is part of human psychology and probably evolved in us in response to one of the evolved functions of flowers which is to provide information about the plant. Our appreciation of the beauty of flowers is probably an adaptive response to colourful cues in the environment which originally helped primitive hominid species to find sources of food. With experience flowers tell us a lot about the stage of ripeness of a plant's fruit.

Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Hanging Gardens of Babylon
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The flower is the reproductive part of the plant and is used by the plant to attract animals and insects for the purpose of assisting in the plant's reproduction through pollination and the spread of seeds. The flower helps us (and animals and insects) to visually find and identify specific plants in what might otherwise be an indistinguishable sea of greens. Contrasting colours within a flower also help make it more visible to insects and animals. Flowers are often most colourful when they are mature and ready for pollination.

Primitive farming first made its appearance about 10000 years ago after the last Ice Age during the Neolithic or New Stone Age. Dates are uncertain and archaeological discoveries keep pushing them further back. The Ice Age ended due to rapid global warming. Forests replaced the grasslands and this, perhaps with over hunting,seems to have led to the extinction of many species of megafauna (giant mammoth, ox, elk ) upon which people relied. Farming appears to have begun simultaneously in different parts of the world wherever environmental conditions were ripe.

One important early center of agriculture was Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) where the cereal plants wheat, barley and oats were cultivated. In the Americas the early Indians ate potato, yams, and manioc and later cultivated that all-important crop maize. The Mayans later believed that they were created from maize (corn) which was a crop they were very dependent upon. The Aztecs, in one of their rituals, flayed the sacrificial victim, the priests then donning his skin in representation of corn within the husk about to burst forth.

The Sumerians had gardens but the Egyptians were among the first peoples to introduce ornamental gardens which were planned and had fish ponds in them. Plants grown included roses. Narcissus have been found in funeral garlands in tombs. The first records of gardens date back to 2200 BC. The early gardens had a very symbolic design-often four parts divided by water. Egyptian gardens were very formal and planted in rectangular beds.

Garden of AmenhotepQueen Hatshetsup sent off plant gatherers to the land of Punt as early as 1495 BC. It was led by Prince Nehasi who sailed up the Nile to gather trees of myrrh and frankincense which were dutifully transported back to Thebes and planted in a temple garden. Below is a plan of the walled garden of an official of Amenhotep from about 1400 BC.

Vineyards in the middle, house to the left, date palms, and pools with lilies birds, and probably fish. Notice the symmetry.The Egyptians also grew herbs for medicinal purposes and incense in their gardens. When Ramses III (1198-1166 BC) founded a city he created it with walk ways and beautiful gardens. The growing of plants in earthenware pots originates from this period.

This illustration is part of an ivory chest which is about 3 1/2 thousand years old. It is decorated in a carved relief of a garden promenade of Tutankhamen and his wife Anch-es-Amun. Her body is slim and attractive. Egyptian women were often shaved entirely and their pleated skirts were worn wide open in front to reveal this! This photo is copyright Winnifred de Chichon and used with permission.

The earliest representation of a pot in from a decorated altar in Malta, Hagar Qim, which is from before 2000 BC. The Mesopotamians, Greeks, and Romans all used pots to plant flowers-terracotta being among the favoured materials.

The peoples of ancient Mesopotamia also built ziggurats, terraced pyramids, which they cultivated. The famous "Hanging Gardens of Babylon", one of the "Seven Wonders of the Ancient World" was probably cultivated on a ziggurat. This garden was apparently made by King Nebuchadnessar for his Persian wife who was homesick.

In Islamic tradition, for the wealthy noble, the garden is an earthly paradise, symbolizing the heaven of the Koran. It is meant to be cool and shady in contrast to the heat and dryness of desert. They were called pairidaeza which is the origin of the English word 'paradise' coming from the Persian pardes via the Greek paradeisos.

Sunflowers, which do not grow in the wild, were cultivated by American Indians about 3,000 years ago. The Aztecs had chinampas, gardens floating on 'rafts' in lakes, and grew a variety of flowers which were very imporant in Aztec life. Montezuma, the Aztec Emperor, cultivated the orchid species Stanhopea Tigrina. They loved to smell them individually or in bouquets and had horticulturists and specialists in flower arranging (xochipixque). Elaborate bouquets were given after banquets.

The Garden of the Alhambra, Grenada, Spain

On this website see also:

Garden of Eden>Gardens of Myth and Legend Beautiful gardens have been part of human experience from very early times and in many cultures the creation stories involve gardens. These myths, including the story of man's disobedience are strikingly similar in many cultures.

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