History of wheat

Wheat farming permitted the rise of civilisation

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The wheats known today are cereals that evolved in the Middle East through repeated hybridisations of Triticum spp. with members of a closely related grass genus, Aegilops.

The process which began some ten thousand years ago involved the following major steps. Wild einkorn T. boeoticum crossed spontaneously with Aegilops speltoides to produce Wild Emmer T. dicoccoides; further hybridisations with another Aegilops, A. squarrosa, gave rise to Spelt, Emmer T. dicoccum and early forms of Durum Wheat; Bread Wheat finally evolved when cultivated Emmer re-crossed with A. squarrosa in the southern Caspian plains. This evolution was accelerated by an expanding geographical range of cultivation and by human selection, and had produced Bread Wheats as early as the sixth millennium BC.

Modern varieties are selections caused by natural mutation starting with:

1) Emmer.
A low yielding, tall (2m) awned wheat with small grains and originating from a mutation with no husk. Closely related to the modern durum wheat used for pasta, Emmer dates from approximately 7000 BC. This wheat along with barley, has been found on sites, including the Pyramids, all over the near east and Europe from the earliest times. In fact Emmer wheat was the staple cereal of prehistory, the real reason why early agriculture actually worked. Even today it is grown in remote areas of Turkey and Syria.
2) Einkorn
is said to have been widely cultivated in Neolithic times and, by the Iron Age, Bread Wheat T. aestivum was sustaining populations in much of Europe. A sub species, Club wheat T compactum, was notably grown by Neolithic farmers in Swiss lake side villages. Identification of the types of crops grown in the Iron Age comes from 3 sources of evidence; carbonised seed, pollen grains and impressions of seed fired into pottery. In proportion related to the climate of the site; Einkorn is more resistant to cold, heat, drought, fungoid diseases and bird predation, although its yield is lower than those of emmer, spelt and naked wheat
3) Spelt.
Similar to Emmer but with a tough husk that cannot be removed. Spelt was probably first sown and harvested in the Bronze Age. Spelt has an appalling yield (by weight, not volume) and even when threshed is mostly husk, consequently it is not surprising that Bronze Age man had very worn teeth. Along with Emmer wheat, Spelt was grown extensively in Britain during the late Iron Age and the Roman period. Its modern use is for specialist bread and breakfast cereals
4) Modern wheat.
Husk free and with (usually) no awns, it is typically short (under 1m) and stands well in highly fertile situations.

A Natural History of Man in Britain - Fleure & Davies
A Field Guide to the Crops of Britain and Europe - G M de Rougemont
Foragers and Farmers - Gregg

Sarah Wroot
David Pickersgill