Compost History: The Fascinating Story of an Ancient Science

Think the history of compost is boring?

Think again.

In this article you’ll find bones stolen from graveyards and battlefields to fertilise Yorkshire fields.

You’ll find Egyptians facing death for stealing earthworms and ancient people using blood to fertilise their gardens.

You’ll also find some sound principles and solutions that could well help us in the modern day.

Let’s get started…

Contents

First known composting

It’s likely that the first use of compost – or at least manure – took place not long after the start of cultivation.

After all, a people who lived close to nature would soon have noticed the grass grew greener where an animal had deposited its poo.

Research in Scotland is starting to provide some early evidence of this. Digs in Scotland have found that use of domestic waste as compost started as far back as the Neolithic period.

It appears these early farmers simply ran an ard (plough) through their midden heaps and onto the patch they were cultivating in order to increase the fertility of the land.

While simple, the process appeared to have been effective for small but intensive farming.

First written mention of compost

It’s likely composting became widespread long before the first use of writing, so it’s not surprising that we had to wait many more years before the first written record of composting.

That happened around about 2,300 BC, when the Akkadian Empire referenced the use of manure in a series of clay tablets.

There are around 500,000 tablets in museums around the world.

Many of these have not yet been translated, so it is quite possible that historians will discover even older references to composting.

Composting in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome

The practise of fertilisation continued through multiple civilisations.

The Romans, Greek and Egyptians fertilised fields in several ways.

They would spread manure directly on the fields, collect and compost waste on dung hills and use manure and urine soaked straw.

Cleopatra certainly seems to have taken an interest in the fertility of the land if not in compost.

As we noted in our Fascinating Compost Facts article, the Egyptian Queen put in laws to protect earthworms and banned the export of worms under pain of death.

The Greek warrior, philosopher and writer Xenophon also discussed the use of manure in his Oeconomicus. He advised farmers to gather weeds and allow them to rot in water to create a manure to “gladden the fields”.

He also expanded on the benefits of green manure, suggesting farmers grow a crop to plough into the field and enrich the soil.

Cato the Elder, a Roman Senator, historian and solider had plenty to say about manure in his De Agricultura. One of his many passages on fertility advised farmers to:

See that you have a large dunghill; save the manure carefully, and when you carry it out, clean it of foreign matter and break it up. Autumn is the time to haul it out. During the autumn also dig trenches around the olive trees and manure them.

On a grimmer note, the ancients were also becoming aware of how blood, flesh and bone left from wars benefitted plants.

For example, Plutarch noted:

They say that the soil, after the bodies had rotted and the winter rains had fallen, was so fertilised and saturated with the putrefied matter which sank into it, that it produced an unusual crop the next season.

Composting in the Talmud

The importance of compost and fertiliser lead to a litany of references in both the Talmud and the Bible.

One passage in the Talmud talks about the use of dung to fertilise the soil:

They lay dung to moisten and enrich the soil; dig about the roots of trees; pluck up the suckers; take off the leaves¡ sprinkle ashes; and smoke under the trees to kill vermin.

The Talmud also advised the faithful to wait for manure to rot down before using it. While this was because the manure was considered unclean, it would have also led to more effective compost.

The blood from sacrifices wasn’t wasted either – instead, it was directed to a stream flowing below the altar, and the mixed water and blood was sold to gardeners for use as a fertiliser.

Human Blood 

The Arabs, and especially those who conquered much of Spain, were experts in the use of fertiliser:

“Fields that had been yielding one crop yearly at most prior to the Muslims were now capable of yielding three or more crops in rotation.”

Ibn Al Waham, an Islamic landowner in Andalucia, Spain, wrote the best known book on agriculture from the Islamic period, the Kitab al Falaha or Book of Agriculture.  

It’s a comprehensive piece of work which drew extensively on past knowledge and cultures, including work from the Byzantines, Greeks, Romans and other Islamic writers, as well as his own observations.

The books includes a whole chapter on the preparation and use of compost and manure – including humanure. Al Waham also recommended recipes with blood for fertilising:

 …as blood has prodigious virtue to revive (or return) some trees and plants.

Any blood would do, although the best was a camel, sheep – and human.

The Aztecs – savage but eco-friendly

Aztecs farming artificial islands.

Despite their penchant for human sacrifice, the Aztecs were in some ways more advanced than we are – at least when it came to taking care of the environment.

Littering was a crime, and if you cut down a tree without permission you could be sentenced to death.

Perhaps most impressive was the way they used human waste.

The Aztecs built a system of human latrines throughout their city. The faeces from these was collected and used as compost, along with guano.

This highly efficient system contributed to food security. This city of 200,000 could produce four crops a year on artificial islands called Chinampas – enough to feed two thirds of its population.

The agricultural system was clean, efficient and admired by the Spanish – although that didn’t stop them from dismantling it.

Night soil through the ages

The Aztecs weren’t the only civilisation to value human waste.

Centuries before, in Ancient Athens, excrement was collected by the sewage system.

The sewage stored in a reservoir and transported to the Cephisus river valley where it was used as a fertiliser.

Night soil was also hugely important in Asia. In Japan, for example, compost collectors would pay to take away night soil.

Intriguingly, they would offer more for the excrement of rich Japanese people than they would for poor people’s poo.

Demand often outstripped supply, with farmers protesting at the steep prices charged by urban landlords.

Night soil has also been collected in China for centuries, a practice which they called “emptying nocturnal fragrance”.

It certainly seemed to work for them.

One American agricultural scientist, F. H. King, travelled to Japan and China in 1911.

His mission?

To find out how these countries could maintain fertility over thousands of years when America was destroying it in decades.

His travels were turned into a book, Farmers of 40 Centuries, in which he wrote:

The International Concession of the city of Shanghai, in 1908, sold to a Chinese contractor the privilege of entering residences and public places early in the morning of each day in the year and removing the night soil, receiving therefor more than $31,000, gold, for 78,000 tons of waste.

All of this we not only throw away but expend much larger sums in doing so.

The presidents who loved composting

Today’s US presidents might be more urbane, but some earlier presidents were down-to-earth farmers or ranchers. They may well have been happier building a pile of dung than they were digging deep into the intricacies of politics.

George Washington spent significant time experimenting with different formulas for manure before finally settling on a mixture of manure and plant material which he rotted down in a purpose built dung repository.

To maximise manure collection, he even built bird perches in the repository, so the bird droppings would be added to the manure.

Thomas Jefferson also showed an early appreciation of how good soil can help plants resist attacks from insects, writing to his daughter that:

We will try this winter to cover our garden with a heavy coating of manure. When is rich it bids defiance to droughts, yields in abundance, and of the best quality. I suspect that the insect which have harassed you have been encouraged by the feebleness of your plants; and that has been produced by the lean state of the soil.

Importing and grinding soldiers bones

A grimmer attitude towards fertiliser was seen in Britain in the 19th century, when bones both from graveyards and from battlefields were shipped to Yorkshire to be ground up and used on the fields.

In November 1822, the Gentleman’s Magazine wrote:

An excerpt from Gentleman's magazine.

Indeed, it lead Justus Liebig (also featured below) to complain:

Great Britain deprives all countries of the conditions of their fertility. It has raked up the battle-fields of Leipsic (sic), Waterloo and the Crimea; it has consumed the bones of many generations accumulated in the catacombs of Sicily; and now annually destroys the food for a future generation of three million and a half people. Like a vampire it hangs on the breast of Europe, and even the world, sucking its lifeblood without any real necessity or permanent gain for itself.

Justus Liebig: Debunking the Humus Theory 

Drawing of Justus Liebig.
Justus Liebig

Prior to 1840, agriculturalists assumed that plants grew by ‘eating’ Humus. But this was challenged by Justus Liebig in a monograph on agricultural history in 1840.

Humus was thought to be composed of decomposed plant material. Liebig pointed out that if plants needed humus to grow, the first plants could never have grown. 

Liebig proved this theory by growing plants in charcoal. He also came up with the “law of the minimum”, stated that plant growth is constrained by the least available nutrient in the soil. 

His discoveries lead to the birth of the chemical fertiliser industry. This accelerated the international trading of fertilisers and the increasing trend of flushing human waste into the sea instead of using it on the land. 

Liebig himself had great concerns over this trend, both for food security and because of the waste involved. He also spoke admiringly of the Chinese’ use of humanure:

“But how infinitely inferior is the agriculture of Europe to that of China!…Indeed so much value is attached to the influence of human excrements by these people, that laws of the state forbid that any of them should be thrown away, and reservoirs are placed in every house, in which they are collected with the greatest care.” 

Sir Albert Howard and The lndore Composting Method

Head shot of Sir Albert Howard.

Sir Albert Howard is often regarded as the father of organic composting.

Like F. H. King, he was impressed by how the Chinese used compost to maintain the fertility of their land.

However, when he went to India to work as the Imperial Economic Botonist, he found that many farmers simply burned their plant and fuel waste.

Howard pushed instead for the composting of this material so it could be used for fertilisation, and during his time in India developed the Indore method of composting.

His methods included both novel approaches suited to the environment – for example, putting plant stalks on the road so they would be crushed by carts – and more modern approaches, such as the regular turning of compost.

His knowledge of the nature of soil was also far ahead of his time. For example, in The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture, he wrote:

The soil is, as a matter of fact, full of live organisms. It is essential to conceive of it as something pulsating with life, not as a dead or inert mass. There could be no greater misconception than to regard the earth as dead: a handful of soil is teeming with life. The living fungi, bacteria, and protozoa, invisibly present in the soil complex, are known as the soil population. This population of millions and millions of minute existences, quite invisible to our eyes of course, pursue their own lives.

Unfortunately, he did have some extreme beliefs. For example, he believed that all human and plant disease was caused by poor soil.

This damaged the reputation of a man who was otherwise both a competent scientist and an ambassador of effective composting techniques.

Rudolf Steiner: Spiritual Composting

At a time when over-use of fertilisers were already starting to damage the soil, Rudolf Steiner’s Biodynamic approach to agriculture went far beyond organic farming. 

His thoughts were published in a series of lectures in 1924, and propagated a holistic approach to farming that embraced spirituality:  

“..we shall never understand plant life unless we bear in mind that everything which happens on the Earth is but a reflection of what is taking place in the Cosmos.

‘For man this fact is only masked because he has emancipated himself; he only bears the inner rhythms in himself. To the plant world, however, it applies in the highest degree.”

His compost preparations went far beyond anything before or since. For example, Preparation 500 involves placing cow manure in a cow horn, burying it over winter and then stirring it into water both clockwise and counter-clockwise for exactly one hour.

Steiner’s teachings have inspired, and there are now around 2000 Biodynamic farms around the world. The teachings may be eccentric, but studies have shown that the soil on biodynamic farms is richer in microbes and biodiversity. 

Lessons for the present

Running back through the history of composting, I find it fascinating to see that the problems we face in modern society were often mirrored in history.

For example, the Romans devastated the fertility of their land, leading one Roman to complain:

…that in that very land in Saturn’s own country, where gods taught their children how to till the soil, there at public auction we have to contract for corn imported from provinces beyond the seas, that we may not: suffer from starvation, and wine we have to import from the Cyclades, from the regions of Boetica and Gaul.

But from the Aztecs to the Chinese, some societies had the solutions to these problems – solutions that not only lead to a cleaner environment but to a more fertile land.

Perhaps, in a world where we spend billions to treat sewage and pump it into our seas, there are still lessons we can learn from these ancient civilisations.