Humus, a brief History

Veronika Bond Humus

photo: Austin D.

“We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.”Leonardo da Vinci

The word humus has been known for more than 2000 years. The Roman poet Virgil (70 — 19 B.C.) used it in the sense of ‘earth’. Not much later the Latin-speaking people abandoned the term and replaced it with terra. This is still the common name for earth in Portuguese.

In the 18th century, the word humus came back in Germany. Albrecht Thaer, a physician and agronomist began to use it in the sense of a part of the soil: “The usual name for this substance is mould,” he explained. “Humus is the residue of animal and plant putrefaction.”

By 1925 the word was in common use in other countries too. The Ukrainian-American microbiologist Selman Waksman wrote, “several theories have been proposed at various times to explain the origin of the black-coloured organic substances, … which are commonly known as ‘humus’.”

In 1924 the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner spoke about humus in his lectures on biodynamic farming. The English botanist Sir Albert Howard discovered how important humus is for the health and fertility of the soil while managing an organic farm in India (1924 – 1931).

During the 20th century, organic and biodynamic farmers all over the world put new ‘humus-theories’ into practice. They recognised that agrochemicals kill their soils and developed new ways of supporting the regeneration of humus.

The substance itself, of course, has been around for millions of years. Planet Earth has a ‘humus-belt’ which covers large areas in Eastern Europe and Asia, stretches across North American prairies, and reappears briefly in Morocco before fading into the Saharan desert.

Moldova and Ukraine belong to a part of the world which can be considered the ‘cradle of the humus-belt’. Before humans began to plough the land, most of Moldova was covered in black humus-rich soil, often 1 metre deep. The virgin soil was famous for its fertility and used to produce an abundant and diverse variety of crops. Today Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, and the humus-belt is vanishing.

In response to the worldwide soil crisis, new initiatives to grow humus are now popping up everywhere. The Humus Project is one of them. That we talk about ‘growing humus’ and ‘growing soil’ means that we are beginning to understand and treat humus as a living organism.

In June 2015, Ronnie Cummins, director of the American Organic Consumers Association, declared that we need a “massive grass roots army of earth-regenerators: 3 billion small farmers, villagers, ranchers, shepherds, forest dwellers, urban gardeners and indigenous communities — assisted by several billions of conscious consumers and urban activists.”

It looks like humus is gaining a following. The years 2015-2024 have officially been declared as the ‘Decade of Soils’. This refers to fertile soils of course, or in other words humus-rich soils. Humus is starting to be recognised as the queen of the soil kingdom.


The humus revolution has begun — you can be part of it