Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Humans and Oil

How Did We Create This Mess?

Natural tar seep at the McKittrick Oil Field, CA, north of Hwy 58. (Wikimedia Commons/Lldenke)

Janis Petzel, M.D.

In medicine, homeostasis or the stable balance between interdependent elements, is the sign of a healthy body. Imbalance causes illness and disease. The global equivalent to homeostasis is sustainability. I view climate change as a sign of imbalance and dis-ease in our world’s various ecosystems. The cause? Carbon pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. Wildfires, sea level rise, floods, droughts are all manifestations of the malignancy of carbon pollution.

Over the next several issues of Green Energy Times, we will explore together ideas on how we got to this unbalanced state, and most important, what we can do about it.

My medical training tells me that it’s difficult to diagnose and cure an illness if you don’t have a good history from the patient. So, let’s look at the history of humans and oil.

The word petroleum comes from ancient Greek for “oil rock.” As anyone who has visited the La Brea Tar Pits (or who has watched the sixties TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies”) knows, there are places in the world where oil seeps out of rocks close to the surface of the earth. When exposed to air, the seepage thickens into a tarry substance called bitumen, pitch or asphalt.

We don’t know when humans first figured out how to use the bitumen, but it was thousands of years ago. Bitumen-coated flint tools from the Syrian desert have been dated to 40,000 BC. In the Book of Exodus, Moses’ mother placed her baby in the Nile in a floating basket waterproofed with pitch.

At least 6000 years ago, people living along the Euphrates River in what is now Iraq used bitumen from a seep called “Fountain of Pitch.” The Babylonians built waterproof homes with bitumen, brick and mortar. Sticky bitumen was used in the ancient world to hold arrows and weapon heads on to handles, to create flaming arrows. It was used to make jewelry and mosaics. The stones of the pyramids of Egypt are held together with bitumen cement. The Egyptians also used oil products for embalming mummies. Ship builders waterproofed reed boats, and later wooden sail boats with tar from pitch. Sailors got so coated with the stuff that they became known as Tars.

By the 10th century in the Middle East, Islamic chemists knew how to distill petroleum. Marco Polo passed by Baku, Azerbaijan in 1273 and recorded oil fields, with oil mined through shafts.

The Chinese may have been the first to drill for natural gas. Roughly 2000 years ago, when they were mining for salt brine for table salt, they stumbled upon natural gas deposits. Using bamboo pipes, they burned the gas for light, heat, and to boil off the water in the salt brine.

Indigenous people on the continents of South and North America used petroleum from seeps to create weapons, ceremonial body paint and fires long before the arrival of Europeans. When Europeans finally got to North America, they purchased medicinal Seneca Oil created from petroleum by Seneca tribe members in upstate New York or from Iroquois people in Pennsylvania.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, train oil (whale oil) was used for lamps as well as soaps, lubricants and varnish. But whale oil was smelly and became harder to get when whales were overhunted almost to extinction. “Rock oil” cost less, and as awful petroleum products smell, they were an improvement over the stench of whale oil.

But until the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the late 1700’s, human use of fossil fuels depended mainly on found surface deposits of oil and was not enough to disrupt the global environment. In an article from the Geological Society, Jonathan Craig and colleagues note “methods used to produce petroleum in Europe remained almost unchanged between the sixteenth and the first half of the nineteen century. Basically, it was a craft activity, carried out without specific mining tools that yielded limited quantities of petroleum…it was not sought out, but simply found in the ground.”

But advances in what came to be called organic chemistry (the chemistry of carbon-containing compounds like oil and coal), and ironically, the invention of the coal-powered steam engine, which allowed for drilling through rock to get to the oil beneath Titusville, PA in 1859, changed all of that.

We’ll talk about how we went from thousands of years of “craft” petroleum use to the mass production of petroleum products and automobiles in less than 100 years in our next installment of this series in the February issue of Green Energy Times.

Janis Petzel, MD is a physician, grandmother and climate activist whose writing focusses on resilience, climate, and health. She lives in Islesboro, Maine where she strives to advocate and act for a fossil-fuel free future. She serves on the Islesboro Energy Committee and is a Climate Ambassador for Physicians for Social Responsibility.


Connan, J et al, “Use and trade of bitumen in antiquity and prehistory: molecular archeology reveals secrets of past civilizations [and Discussion].” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences Vol. 354, no.1370. The Royal Society, 1999 pp.33-50, Accessed 12-2-21). Boeda et al 1996 cited. “Even before colonists arrived, Native Americans had used crude oil for various purposes. Some used it for waterproofing and building and most believed it had medicinal properties. The Seneca tribes were particularly interested in the material, obtaining it from seeps in what is now upstate New York and trading it. Crude oil even came to be known as “Seneca Oil.”” (accessed 12/1/21)–reiterates history I found in many other sources, but in an easy to digest manner. Discusses Col. Edwin Drake’s first oil well in Titusville, PA in 1859.

On Muhammed ibn Zakarya Razi: (accessed 12-1-21) and in references there: Forbes, Robert James (1958). Studies in Early Petroleum History. Brill Publishers p.149.

The history of the European oil and gas industry (1600s–2000s) Jonathan Craig, Francesco Gerali, Fiona MacAulay and Rasoul Sorkhabi Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 465, 1-24, 21 June 2018, Summary: In Europe in the 1500- early 1800s, “methods used to produce petroleum in Europe remained almost unchanged between the sixteenth and the first half of the nineteen century. Basically, it was a craft activity, carried out without specific mining tools that yielded limited quantities of petroleum…it was not sought out, but simply found in the ground…restricted to a few surface oil seeps…” Bitumen boiled to make pitch for caulking ships or treating ropes. Human use of coal follows a similar time course to that of oil. (accessed 12/1/21) (accessed 12-2-21). Accessed 11/30/2020. Historical Whaling in New England by ANA RECARTE, approximately February 2002. Accessed 11/30/2020. Benjamin Franklin may have invented an efficient two-wick whale oil lamp that didn’t smoke or spill. (p.4) Accessed 11/30/2020.

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