How Humankind Advanced Thanks to Plants

Gardeners have a lot to thank plants for. They entertain us, calm us – even feed us. They make our homes and local environments not only visually appealing, but mentally appealing too, contributing to a relaxed and happy state of mind. But these are all benefits gardeners already know – or else, why would we be gardening after all? Beyond our backyards, there are many more reasons to thank plants, from the minor to the massive. And when it comes to massive reasons to thank plants, how humankind has advanced is largely thanks to plants, in terms of human development and technological jumps throughout history. Starting with the first ever fire and extending to our massive systems of global communications, plants have played a far greater role in human history than you may imagine.


Known as one of the greatest discoveries of all time, and the spark of the rapid development of humankind, our ability to create and control fire is all thanks to plants. Historians suggest human interaction with fire began around 1.5 million years ago, but our control of this volatile element probably began around 400 000 years ago. For humans to build controlled fires, they needed an essential element – combustible materials. The expansive plant world provided all the required resources. Scientists argue this mastery of fire and the ability to cook food frequently allowed our brains to grow and obtain new information, making us smarter.


Several thousands of years later, humanity would change dramatically again thanks to plants, creating a way of life still sustained 10 000 years later. The domestication of edible plants of the Neolithic Period – such as wheat, lentils and barley – sparked the beginnings of agriculture. This transformation allowed societies that previously roamed in search of food to settle and put down roots, creating the first stable settlements. The resulting surplus of food also facilitated population growth and allowed individuals to focus on pursuits other than gathering food, leading to the wide range of advancements and inventions after that period.

The wheel

For the classic cliché ‘reinventing the wheel’, we again have plants to thank. Strictly speaking, the first working wheel was actually made from clay, but it was only when wood was involved in its construction that the wheel really became useful. Around 5 400 years ago, the first wagon was built, and it changed the game in a number of ways. Farmers no longer required a massive team to fulfil the tasks of planting, fertilising and harvesting, as the wagons did all the heavy lifting. Transportation of goods and people was simplified and expanded, immeasurably changing the functioning of entire societies. According to anthropologist David Anthony, “it would be difficult to exaggerate the social and economic importance of the first wheeled transport”.


It surrounds us every day – the pile of papers on your desk, the sandpaper in your tool shed, or the leftover wrapping paper in your Christmas decoration cupboard. However, we rarely take a second to consider how essential paper is (until, of course, you can’t find any when you desperately need it). And whether we are referring to paper today, or to the paper of ancient Egypt, it all stems from plants. The precursor to modern paper, called papyrus, is actually named after its origin plant, Cyperus papyrus. Strips of the stem of this plant were laid side by side and pressed together to form a single sheet. As papyrus was not particularly durable, an anonymous inventor in China, to whom we owe a lot of gratitude, made the first true paper out of processed plant materials. This development, dated around 200BCE, allowed for the transmission of knowledge and the entrenchment of our historical record thanks to its longevity and transportability.


Evidence of large-scale coal use in history is pretty spotty before the Industrial Revolution, where coal was catapulted into mainstream use. This fuel of industry would not be possible without plants – specifically, plants that had been dead for millions of years. To form coal, dead plant matter must first decay into peat that is then transformed into coal by the heat and pressure of deep burial. Anyone in a high school history class will be able to spout the many advancements that came out of the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, essentially laying the foundations for our modern-day societies.

The Internet

Now that each of our lives operate largely on the internet, you may think there is less and less to thank plants for in our technologically focused world. But, that thing you spend hours a day on and that the world seemingly cannot live without is also the child of a plant. The first ever transatlantic telegraph cable, installed in the mid-19th century, paved the way for the massive global telecommunications system. Take a look at any undersea cable map and you will notice it continues to follow the patterns of the early cables laid in the 1850s.

This invention was made possible by a tree called gutta-percha. This tree produced a latex-like substance of the same name, able to withstand water and maintain its integrity over time. Masses of copper wires were wrapped in layers of gutta-percha and placed under the sea, connecting continents (relatively) quickly for the first time in history.

As a token of gratitude, the ‘Thanks Plants’ campaign was launched by the Flower Council of Holland in 2018. The campaign highlights the massive role plants play in our daily lives and gives thanks to them for sustaining our lives. Look out for the South African campaign spearheaded by Plantland, Starke Ayres and The Gardener and Die Tuinier magazines that will bring you articles and activities on the importance of plants and the benefits of gardening. For more information visit www.thanksplantssa.co.za.

The Gardener