Ancient Crops and Harvests

Soon after World War II the tale circulated among American soldiers returning from action in North Africa that grain found deep inside in the Egyptian Pyramids was found to be vital. Some kernels were planted and the variety known commercially in some places as Kamut was born. This had all the makings of a great story even though it has since been thoroughly debunked. But in fact, grain that has been stored in a dry place and kept at around 40 degrees can remain vital for a century or longer, and it is possible to revive some ancient botanical discoveries under special conditions. Thanks to farmers like Brad Bailie of Lenwood Farms near Connell, several ancient grains now appear in the fields of eastern Washington.

Ancient Einkorn “Wheat” Lenwood Farms near Connell, Washington
Ancient Einkorn “Wheat”
Lenwood Farms near Connell, Washington

The advent of widespread use of grains for food can only be estimated, but archaeological evidence indicates humans in eastern Africa mixed crushed primitive wheats and barleys with water to form gruel as early as 100,000 years ago. Cooking on heated stones, with embers, and in other ways enabled the roasting and toasting of grains to enhance flavors, but the revolutionary advent of fire-resistant earthenware pots in the Middle East by the eighth millennium BC fostered a significant advancement in food supply, culture, and population growth. Grains boiled in water made possible a savory array of pottages, soups, and stews, with the softened food especially benefiting the very young and elderly. No culinary advance since the invention of earthenware has had such a salutary effect on cooking methods.

Cultivation of cereal grains has been integral to humanity’s advance since time immemorial. Cereals, named for the Roman goddess of fertility, Ceres, are not only nutritious but also adaptable to a wide range of climates and soil conditions. The ancestral range of modern cereal grains stretched along the Fertile Crescent from the Anatolian slopes of southeastern Turkey—where locals believe Adam first tilled the ground, eastward across Transcaucasia and Mesopotamia to Kashmir and south to Ethiopia. This vast region is notable for long, hot summers and mild, moist winters which was ideal for the emergence of large-seeded cereals that became the principal foods sources that fueled human expansion throughout the world. The advent of grain cultivation through the replenishment of soils by annual flooding coincided with animal husbandry as villagers sought to prevent creatures of horn and hoof from damaging grain fields by domesticating them and harnessing their labor. These developments spurred the Neolithic Revolution in Upper Mesopotamia approximately 9000 BC and represented the key breakthrough in civilization that led to settlements with gardens and livestock that led in turn to food surpluses and the rise of settled, urban populations.

Ancient Purple Egyptian Barley

The transition involving environmental, religious, and other profound influences was by no means rapid. Several thousand years transpired before hunting and gathering yielded to agriculture in the Middle East, and in some parts of the world Neolithic lifeways have endured into modern times even as wheat, barley, rice, maize and other cereal grains account today for approximately half of humanity’s caloric intake. By 5000 BC these primitive self-pollinating plants—capable of evolving more rapidly than any other known organism, had spread along the Mediterranean coast to the Iberian Peninsula and north of the Caucasus Mountains. Some two thousand years later wheat reached the British Isles. Dispersion of cereal grains by wind, animals, and other natural processes was inexorable if slow—perhaps a thousand yards per year on average. Successive plant selections by early farmers led to earlier maturing stands with characteristics unique to each region. These ancient landrace wheats gained a foothold in central Europe and Scandinavia by about 3000 BC via the Danube, Rhine, and Dnieper river valleys.