Cultivation is not the same as domestication. Domestication involves changes that do the plant no good in the wild, but that make it more useful to the people who cultivate it. Seeds that don’t disperse, for example, and that aren’t all that well protected from pests and diseases. In this episode, where did people begin the process of domesticating wheat, and what set them on the road to agriculture.
Modern bread wheat contains more than five times more DNA than people, in a much more complicated arrangement. As a result, it has taken a fair old while to decode wheat’s genome. Having done so, though, the DNA confirms what plant scientists have long suspected — that bread wheat is the result of two separate occasions on which an ancestor of wheat crossed with a goat grass. The DNA also tells us when those crosses might have happened.
Maybe you heard about the oldest crumbs of burnt toast in the world. But have you stopped to wonder how the archaeologists found those crumbs? The bread they came from was a fine, mixed grain loaf that might well have been a special dish at a feast. It is even possible that bread was the first elite food that became affordable thanks to industrial technology — agriculture.
When did people start to eat wheat? The date keeps getting pushed back, and is now around 35,000 to 45,000 years ago. That is long before the dawn of intentional agriculture. How do we know? Because a man who died in a cave hadn’t cleaned his teeth, and stuck in the tartar were grains of boiled starch. Which raises another set of problems that seem to have been solved by wilderness survival experts.
It’s magic, I know. First a pretty ordinary grass becomes the main source of sustenance for most of the people alive on Earth. Then they learn how to turn the seeds of that grass into the food of the gods. Join me, every day in August, as I dig into Our Daily Bread for the Dog Days of Podcasting with short episodes on the history of wheat and bread.
In the 1960s, using the most primitive of tools, an American plant scientist demonstrated that a small family, working not all that hard for about three weeks, could gather enough wild cereal seeds to last them easily for a year or more. Jack Harlan’s experiments on the slopes of the Karacadağ mountains in Turkey offer a perfect gateway to this exploration of the history of bread and wheat.
Photo of Wild einkorn, wild emmer and Aegilops species in Karacadag mountain range by H. Özkan.