In recent years, the alternative health world has been rocked by the introduction of chaga, a powerful herbal mushroom from the far north. Historically used as a folk remedy by generations of Alaskans and Siberians, chaga is purported to improve immune system health, aid digestion, combat cancer, reverse aging, and much more. While chaga has only recently been introduced to the wider world, its history in the far north extends back millennia.
If you’re curious about the history of chaga and how it came to be such a popular superfood, read on.
The History of Chaga
As mentioned above, chaga has been used by generations of native Alaskans and Siberians since time immemorial. The exact point at which indigenous Alaskans and Siberians began cultivating chaga as a cure-all is not known due to these groups’ lack of written history. However, there are a number of milestones in chaga history that are worth pointing out.
The use of chaga as a medicinal herb stretches back to at least 3400 BCE. Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved mummy discovered in 1991 in the Austrian Alps and believed to have lived from 3400 to 3100 BCE, was found carrying chaga in his pouch. While Ötzi has never been identified with a particular tribe of people, the Khanty people of western Siberia are generally acknowledged as the first people to use chaga for medicinal purposes.
The Khanty developed a number of uses for chaga that presaged its widespread adoption in the modern world. They were known to consume chaga tea for intestinal health as well as a means of cleaning out the digestive tract during detox periods. The Khanty also developed chaga soap by mixing chaga with ash and lard due to the way it lowered inflammation. In addition to this, the Khanty also smoked chaga, believing that doing so would aid lung health.
Chaga gradually spread among the various peoples and tribes of Northern Asia, promoted by hunters and traders who used it to increase their energy levels during long trips. Eventually, it found its way to Eastern Europe and Kievan Rus’, a medieval kingdom that would later evolve into the nation of Russia. Russians gradually adopted chaga as their own, with one Kievan Rus’ Grand Prince, Vladimir II Monamakh, crediting chaga with getting rid of tumors on his lips.
At the same time, chaga spread to other parts of Asia and North America, most notably China, which has a long tradition of using mushrooms such as cordyceps for medicinal purposes. The Shennong Ben Cao Jing, a third century Chinese book on agriculture and horticulture, named chaga as “King of the Herbs” for its various beneficial qualities. While the original text of the book is now lost, chaga endured as a folk remedy in China and was later spread to other parts of Asia and Europe by Genghis Khan and the Mongol invasions.
In the 1950’s, the Soviet Union initiated a series of long-term studies on chaga’s medicinal properties. While chaga’s usefulness as a folk remedy had been ingrained in Russian culture for centuries and limited research on chaga had been carried out in Poland in the late 1940’s, this was the first large-scale attempt to scientifically understand how chaga worked. Research results were positive and chaga became a common treatment method in Soviet hospitals for its immune-boosting properties. It was officially recognized as a treatment method by the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences in 1955.
Despite all this research, chaga remained largely overlooked outside of the Soviet Union and China until 1968, when Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward was published in English. An autobiographical novel based in part on Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in a Soviet cancer ward, the novel detailed the use of chaga as an anti-cancer remedy in Soviet medicine. Due to Solzhenitsyn’s popularity as an anti-Soviet dissidence, Cancer Ward spurred intense interest in chaga on the part of Western medical researchers.
Following the publication of Cancer Ward, scientists and doctors began traveling to the Soviet Union to investigate the medicinal qualities of chaga. They discovered that in large parts of the Soviet Union, cancer rates were far lower than the world average. Researchers concluded that this was due to extensive chaga consumption by Soviet peasants, who drank chaga tea instead of coffee due to the latter’s expense. Scientists were also surprised to see chaga used as an official cancer treatment in Soviet clinics.
While chaga use was originally seen as a long shot in the West due to the Cold War, researchers quickly discovered that chaga also natively grew in Alaska and that chaga there was just as nutritious as Siberian chaga, if not more so. Since the publication of Cancer Ward and the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a bounty of research on chaga’s benefits and effects. Improved awareness, transportation, and the Internet have also made it possible for chaga to be harvested from its natural environment and shipped to customers around the world.
The exact mechanics by which peoples in Siberia came to use chaga as a folk remedy are still unclear and will probably never be discovered due to a lack of documentation that far back in history. However, it is clear that chaga has endured for so long and spread so rapidly because it is the real deal. Celebrated by everyone from native Alaskans to Russian czars to Soviet scientists, chaga is truly one of the northern hemisphere’s best-kept secrets.
With chaga’s growing popularity worldwide and scientists’ continued interest in unlocking its secrets, who knows what we will know about chaga in the years to come? All we do know is that chaga has truly earned its place as a miracle food, a cure-all for everything from cancer to aging. If you are curious about why so many different peoples across the world and time have used chaga, now is a perfectly good time to try it for yourself.