History of Wheat - Where does wheat come from?
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History of Wheat

A field of wheat

September 2016 - Ever since people left Africa for West Asia, about 70,000 BC, they have probably always eaten wheat, which tastes good and is also a good source of carbohydrates.

But for tens of thousands of years, people did not grow wheat. They just picked wheat wild, wherever it happened to grow. When the wheat was ripe in the summer, it was easy to pick enough wheat for your family to eat, in just an hour or so a day.

Sometime around 12,000 BC, though, people began growing wheat on purpose, weeding out all the plants that people couldn't eat like pine trees, and planting the ones that people could eat, like wheat. The first people who planted wheat lived in places where wheat grew naturally: the Zagros mountains between Iraq and Iran, and Israel.

small pale brown seeds
Close up of wheat seeds

Gradually people also made the wheat easier to grow and eat, by choosing the seeds of the best plants for the next years' planting. They chose wheat with big heavy heads (the part you eat), and wheat whose berries were easy to separate from the chaff and straw (the part you don't eat).

People got to have a lot of wheat and not so much of other kinds of food as they used to. They learned different ways of cooking the wheat. Sometimes they put it in a skin or a pot with water and boiled it into porridge (like oatmeal). This was filling and easy to cook, and also it uses very little fuel to cook it. You could boil it with more water and some vegetables and meat and have soup.

stylized wheat and barley carved on a stone vase
Wheat and barley on the Warka Vase
(Sumeria, ca. 3200-3000 BC)

Or you could leave the porridge out for a while, and it would attract wild yeast and ferment into beer. Early people made most of their wheat and barley into beer, though the beer was thick, like oatmeal, and not very alcoholic. People drank it through long straws.

Less often, people made bread with their wheat. Bread is harder to cook and needs more fuel, but you can carry it around and keep it better than porridge, and it tastes better. Mostly people made flat breads, like focaccia or pita bread or pizza, which need less fuel to cook. People also made flat breads because they had to heat the wheat to break off the chaff, and then it wouldn't rise with yeast.

Buy some wheat berries
and grind them yourself!

But around 1500 BC, scientists in ancient Egypt developed a kind of wheat that didn't have to be heated. Then bakers could mix the wheat with yeast from beer-making and make risen bread. A lot of Egyptian bakeries were right next to breweries, so they could share the yeast.

By this time, people were growing wheat even in China. They ate porridge in China too. But in China women did not make wheat into bread. They didn't have the right kind of wheat for risen bread, and anyway charcoal was too expensive in China to bake bread. Instead, people made noodles, which needed much less fuel to cook.

Learn by doing: baking bread
More about barley

Bibliography and further reading about wheat:

Bread Comes to Life: A Garden of Wheat and a Loaf to Eat, by George Levenson (2004). From wheat to bread, lavishly illustrated, very easy reading.

Ancient Agriculture: From Foraging to Farming, by Michael and Mary Woods (2000). Easy, with plenty of information about how farming got started, and how it worked.

Last Hunters-First Farmers: New Perspectives on the Prehistoric Transition to Agriculture, by T. Douglas Price (1995). Why people started farming.

Crackers Recipe
Bagels Recipe
Quick Bread Recipe
No-Knead Bread
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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