The Agricultural Origins of Writing and Arithmetic

Anyone who has compared kernels of wheat with barley or oats knows that the latter are tightly wrapped in a thin and indigestible “husk” layer that is generally removed before processing into flour, Wheaties, Cheerios, or most anything else. The world’s first farmers came to prefer “free-threshing” stands of grain that better enabled separation of kernels from their “hooded” husks. Among several dozen other ancient plant candidates for cultivation, these transitional grain species offered other significant benefits including flavor and nutrition, availability, storage, and portability. In these ways, wheat genotypes gradually came to grow more uniformly around early settlements from Egypt and the Jordan River Valley to Mesopotamia and across the Eurasian steppe to Manchuria. Grains grew for millennia across these landscapes amidst a mélange of irregular “off-types,” wildflowers, grasses, and other plants. Yields improved significantly following the advent of the plow about two thousand years ago, and varieties that descended from these ancient grains have come today to supply nearly one-third of humanity’s nutritional needs.

Cuneiform Account of Grain Distribution (c. 3000 BC) Clay Tablet, 2 ½ x 2 inches Metropolitan Art Museum, New York; Wikimedia Commons
Cuneiform Account of Grain Distribution (c. 3000 BC)
Clay Tablet, 2 ½ x 2 inches
Metropolitan Art Museum, New York; Wikimedia Commons

Earliest examples of Sumerian cuneiform dated c. 3000 BC from tells in Iraq show pictographs with representations of grain heads that eventually led to the first accounting and writing systems. Many of the baked clay tablets are inventories related to grain harvests, storage, and transactions. Barley kernels were also the basis of Sumeria’s standard of measurement and currency (e. g., the shekel) in a complex sexagesimal system that relied on the size, shape, and weight of a theoretical barley seed. (The Sumerian word for barley, Mesopotamia’s staple crop, and for grain, še, is the root of many related terms such as “harvest” [še-sag-ku = “barley” + “head” “to cut”] and einkorn [še-gud = “grain” + “robust”]). Procurement and trade in barley and wheat were key factors in the growth of ancient populations and empires, and the organization of Mesopotamian political elites to mediate distribution of the food supply.

In contrast to many modern societies’ division between sacred and secular realms, the successions of cultures and empires along the Tigris and Euphrates were characterized by a fundamental regard for agriculture that directed religious as well as political and economic life. Temple worship known through art, literature, and music served existential purposes associated with agrarian ways. Stone reliefs of Nisaba, Sumerian goddess of harvest, and later of learning for the accounting of agricultural produce, show her flowing hair crowned with a tiara of grain stalks beneath a crescent moon.