Bulbs from the onion family are thought to have been used as a food source for millennia. In Bronze Age settlements, traces of onion remains were found alongside date stones and fig remains that date back to 5000 BC. However, it is not clear if these were cultivated onions. Archaeological and literary evidence such as the Book of Numbers 11:5 suggests that onions were probably being cultivated around two thousand years later in ancient Egypt, at the same time that leeks and garlic were cultivated. Workers who built the Egyptian pyramids may have been fed radishes and onions.
The onion is easily propagated, transported and stored. The ancient Egyptians worshipped it, believing its spherical shape and concentric rings symbolized eternal life. Onions were even used in Egyptian burials, as evidenced by onion traces being found in the eye sockets of Ramesses IV.
In ancient Greece, athletes ate large quantities of onion because it was believed to lighten the balance of the blood. Roman gladiators were rubbed down with onions to firm up their muscles. In the Middle Ages, onions were such an important food that people would pay their rent with onions, and even give them as gifts. Doctors were known to prescribe onions to facilitate bowel movements and erections, and to relieve headaches, coughs, snakebite and hair loss.
Onions were taken by the first settlers to North America, where the Native Americans were already using wild onions in a number of ways, eating them raw or cooked in a variety of foods. They also used them to make into syrups, to form poultices and in the preparation of dyes. According to diaries kept by the colonists, bulb onions were one of the first things planted by the Pilgrim Fathers when they cleared the land for cropping in 1648.
Onions were also prescribed by doctors in the early 16th century to help with infertility in women. They were similarly used to raise fertility levels in dogs, cats and cattle, but this was an error as recent research has shown that onions are toxic to dogs, cats, guinea pigs and many other animals.