20120207-eikorn Triticum_monococcum0.jpg
eikorn Triticum
The earliest crops were wheat, barley, various legumes, grapes, melons, dates, pistachios and almonds. The world's first wheat, peas, cherries, olives, rye, chickpeas and rye evolved from wild plants found in Turkey and the Middle East.

Scientists have found genetic evidence that the world's four major grains — wheat, rice, corn and sorghum — evolved a common ancestor weed that grew 65 million years ago.

Cereals were being cultivated in what is now Syria. Lebanon, Israel and Palestine around 10,000 years ago in the 8th millenniums B.C. Barley was first grown in the Jordan valley about 10,000 years ago. The earliest levels of excavations at Jericho indicate that the people that lived there collected seeds of cereal grass from rocky crags flanking the valley and planted them in the fertile alluvial soil.

The technique of dating starch granules found in cracks in rocks used to grind up plant material have has been used to find the earliest known use of several foods, including 32,600-year-old oats found in southern Italy and 23,000-year-old barley and wheat discovered in Israel. [Source: Ian Johnston, The Independent, July 3, 2017]

Websites and Resources of Early Agriculture and Domesticated Animals: Britannica; Wikipedia article History of Agriculture Wikipedia ; History of Food and Agriculture museum.agropolis; Wikipedia article Animal Domestication Wikipedia ; Cattle Domestication; Food Timeline, History of Food ; Food and History ;

Archaeology News and Resources: : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Einkorn and Emmer Wheat: First Crops?

The first domesticated crop is believed to have been einkorn wheat, a kind of nourishing grass adapted from a wild species of grass native to the Karacadag mountains near Diyarbakir in southwestern Turkey first cultivated around 11,000 years ago. Scientists deduced this by examining the DNA of modern strains of einkorn wheat and found the were more similar to einkorn wheat grown in the Karacadag mountains than in other places. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 20, 1997]

Collecting seeds from wild grass is not an easy matter. If you pick the seeds before they are ripe they are too small and hard to eat. If you wait so long they fall from the stem and you have to pick them up one by one. With some grasses the period in which the seeds are feasible to collect is only a few days a year. If one wants to get a long term food supply it makes sense to collect as much as you can and take it back to your cave and store it.

Emmer wheat, rye and barley were cultivated around the same time, and is difficult to say which was cultivated first. Emmer wheat and another wheat strain from the Caspian Sea are thought to be the first bread wheats. Emmer wheat is a wild grass. It is thought to have been singled out because its seeds stay attached to the stem significantly longer than that of other grasses.

Barley, First Domesticated Wild Grass

barley field

It is said the Ancient Egyptians believed that one day Osiris, god of agriculture, made a decoction of barley that had germinated with the sacred waters of the Nile, and then distracted by other urgent affairs, left it out in the sun and forgot it. When he came back the mixture had fermented. He drank it, and thought it so good that he let mankind profit by it. This was said to be the origin of beer. According to “Egyptian Food and Drink,” by Hillery Wilson, there was no distinction in ancient Egypt between barley and wheat it is impossible to determine which was cultivated first; both were generally termed”corn”.

Barley was the first domesticated grain in the Near East, approximately the same time as einkorn and emmer wheat. Wild barley (H. vulgare ssp. spontaneum) ranges from North Africa and Crete in the west, to Tibet in the east. The earliest evidence of wild barley in an archaeological context comes from the Epipaleolithic at Ohalo II at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee. The remains were dated to about 8500 B.C. The earliest domesticated barley occurs at Aceramic Neolithic sites, in the Near East such as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B layers of Tell Abu Hureyra, in Syria. Barley has been grown in the Korean Peninsula since the Early Mumun Pottery Period (c. 1500–850 B.C.) along with other crops such as millet, wheat, and legumes. [Source: Wikipedia]

One of the earliest accounts of the distribution of barley can be found on a clay tablet from Mesopotamia, written in Cuneiform dating to 2350 B.C. It called for a ration of 30-40 pints for adults and 20 pints for children. In ancient Egypt, barley was made into bread and porridge and sprouted barley was used as a base for beer. Barley was also used as a feed crop for domestic animals and was employed as a type of currency to pay royal workers. Barley beer was one of the first fermented drinks developed by Neolithic people.

Genome of 6,000-year-old Barley Grains Sequenced

In 2016. Bar-Ilan University reported: “An international team of researchers has succeeded for the first time in sequencing the genome of Chalcolithic barley grains. This is the oldest plant genome to be reconstructed to date. The 6,000-year-old seeds were retrieved from Yoram Cave in the southern cliff of Masada fortress in the Judean Desert in Israel, close to the Dead Sea. Genetically, the prehistoric barley is very similar to present-day barley grown in the Southern Levant, supporting the existing hypothesis of barley domestication having occurred in the Upper Jordan Valley. [Source: Bar-Ilan University, July 18, 2016 /**]

Barely fruit

“Members of the research team are from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Gatersleben, Germany; Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel; Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel; the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany; and the University of Haifa, Israel; The James Hutton Institute, UK; University of California, Santa Cruz, USA; University of Minnesota St. Paul, USA; University of Tübingen, Germany. /**\

“The analyzed grains, together with tens of thousands of other plant remains, were retrieved during a systematic archaeological excavation headed by Uri Davidovich, from the Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Nimrod Marom, from Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, Israel. The archaeobotanical analysis was led by Ehud Weiss, of Bar-Ilan University. The cave is very difficult to access and was used only for a short time by humans, some 6,000 years ago, probably as ephemeral refuge. /**\

“Most examination of archaeobotanical findings has been limited to the comparison of ancient and present-day specimens based on their morphology. Up to now, only prehistoric corn has been genetically reconstructed. In this research, the team succeeded in sequencing the complete genome of the 6,000-year-old barley grains. The results are now published in the online version of the journal Nature Genetics.” /**\

“These archaeological remains provided a unique opportunity for us to finally sequence a Chalcolithic plant genome. The genetic material has been well-preserved for several millennia due to the extreme dryness of the region,” explains Ehud Weiss, of Bar-Ilan University. In order to determine the age of the ancient seeds, the researchers split the grains and subjected half of them to radiocarbon dating while the other half was used to extract the ancient DNA. “For us, ancient DNA works like a time capsule that allows us to travel back in history and look into the domestication of crop plants at distinct time points in the past,” explains Johannes Krause, Director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena. The genome of Chalcolithic barley grains is the oldest plant genome to be reconstructed to date.” /**\

Domestication of Barley Completed Very Early

In 2016. Bar-Ilan University reported: “Wheat and barley were already grown 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, a sickle-shaped region stretching from present-day Iraq and Iran through Turkey and Syria into Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Up to this day, the wild forms of these two crops persist in the region and are among the major model species studied at the Institute of Evolution in the University of Haifa. “It was from there that grain farming originated and later spread to Europe, Asia and North Africa,” explains Tzion Fahima, of the University of Haifa. [Source: Bar-Ilan University, July 18, 2016 /**]

““Our analyses show that the seeds cultivated 6,000 years ago greatly differ genetically from the wild forms we find today in the region. However, they show considerable genetic overlap with present-day domesticated lines from the region,” explains Nils Stein, who directed the comparison of the ancient genome with modern genomes at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK), Gatersleben, with the support of Robbie Waugh and colleagues at the James Hutton Institute, Dundee, Scotland, and Gary Muehlbauer, University of Minnesota, USA. “This demonstrates that the domestication of barley in the Fertile Crescent was already well advanced very early.” /**\

“The comparison of the ancient seeds with wild forms from the region and with so-called ‘landraces’ (i.e., local barley lines grown by farmers in the Near East) enabled to geographically suggest, according to Tzion Fahima and his colleagues at the University of Haifa and Israel’s Tel-Hai College, “the origin of the domestication of barley within the Upper Jordan Valley – a hypothesis that is also supported by two archaeological sites in the surrounding area where the hitherto earliest remains of barley cultivation have been found.

“Also the genetic overlap with present-day domesticated lines from the region is revealing to the researchers. “This similarity is an amazing finding considering to what extent the climate, but also the local flora and fauna, as well as the agricultural methods, have changed over this long period of time,” says Martin Mascher, from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research, the lead author of the study. The researchers therefore assume that conquerors and immigrants coming to the region did not bring their own crop seeds from their former homelands, but continued cultivating the locally adapted extant landraces. /**\

“Combining archaeology, archaeobotany, genetics and computational genomics in an interdisciplinary study has produced novel insights into the origins of our crop plants. “This is just the beginning of a new and exciting line of research,” predicts Verena Schuenemann, from Tuebingen University, the second lead author of the study. “DNA-analysis of archaeological remains of prehistoric plants will provide us with novel insights into the origin, domestication and spread of crop plants.”“

Wild Progenitor of Einkorn Wheat Found in Turkey

wild emmer wheat

Mark Rose wrote in Archaeology magazine: “The wild progenitor of einkorn wheat, one of the first crops to be domesticated (ca. 9000 B.C.), has been identified genetically in southeastern Turkey, according to a report in the journal Science. Manfred Heun of the Agricultural University of Norway, along with Norwegian, German, and Italian colleagues, examined the DNA of 68 lines of cultivated einkorn (Triticum monococcum monococcum), 194 lines of wild einkorn (T. m. boeoticum) from nine geographical regions within the Fertile Crescent, and nine lines of a weedy einkorn (T. m. aegilopoides) found in the Balkans. [Source: Mark Rose, Archaeology magazine, January/February 1998 ++]

“Cultivated einkorns proved closely related to one another and to weedy einkorn. Significantly, both cultivated and weedy varieties are closely related to wild einkorn found in one region, the Karacadag Mountains of southeastern Turkey. The wild einkorn from that area proved to be distinct from other wild types and may be the forebear of the domestic variety. ++

“Eleven of 19 lines of wild einkorn from the Karacadag Mountains are particularly close to cultivated einkorn but have clear wild characteristics, including a brittle stalk yielding a few small grains. In cultivated einkorn the stalk is tougher (which makes the grain easier to harvest), and the seeds are larger and more numerous. The weedy einkorn, closely related to both wild and cultivated types, appears to be an intermediate form with some characteristics of cultivation (the stem is somewhat tougher than in wild plants, the seeds are intermediate in weight, and there are comparable numbers of seeds as in cultivated plants). ++

“Wild or cultivated einkorn grains have been found at several early Neolithic sites in Turkey near the Karacadag Mountains, including Cafer Höyük, Cayönü, and Nevali Cori. Wild and cultivated seeds have also been found at Abu Hureya to the south in Syria.” ++

Wild Emmer Wheat Genome “Time Tunnel”

A global team of researchers has published the first-ever Wild Emmer wheat genome sequence in Science magazine. Wild Emmer wheat is the original form of nearly all the domesticated wheat in the world, including durum (pasta) and bread wheat. Wild emmer is too low-yielding to be of use to farmers today, but it contains many attractive characteristics that are being used by plant breeders to improve wheat. [Source:Tel Aviv University, July 10, 2017]

According to Tel Aviv University: “The study was led by Dr. Assaf Distelfeld of Tel Aviv University's School of Plant Sciences and Food Security and Institute for Cereal Crops Improvement, in collaboration with several dozen scientists from institutions around the world and an Israel-based company - NRGene, which developed the bioinformatics technology that accelerated the research.

Dr. Daniel Chamovitz, Dean of Tel Aviv University's Faculty of Life Sciences, said , "Our ability to generate the Wild Emmer wheat genome sequence so rapidly is a huge step forward in genomic research," said Dr. Curtis Pozniak from the University of Saskatchewan, a project team member and Chair of the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program. "Wheat accounts for almost 20% of the calories humans consume worldwide, so a strong focus on improving the yield and quality of wheat is essential for our future food supply."

"From a biological and historical viewpoint, we have created a 'time tunnel' we can use to examine wheat from before the origins of agriculture," said Dr. Distelfeld. "Our comparison to modern wheat has enabled us to identify the genes involved in domestication - the transition from wheat grown in the wild to modern day varieties. While the seeds of wild wheat readily fall off the plant and scatter, a change in two genes meant that in domesticated wheat, the seeds remained attached to the stalk; it is this trait that enabled humans to harvest wheat."

"This new resource allowed us to identify a number of other genes controlling main traits that were selected by early humans during wheat domestication and that served as foundation for developing modern wheat cultivars," said Dr. Eduard Akhunov of Kansas State University. "These genes provide an invaluable resource for empowering future breeding efforts. Wild Emmer is known as a source of novel variation that can help to improve the nutritional quality of grain as well as tolerance to diseases and water-limiting conditions." "New genomic tools are already being implemented to identify novel genes for wheat production improvement under changing environment," explains Dr. Zvi Peleg of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. "While many modern wheat cultivars are susceptible to water stress, Wild Emmer has undergone a long evolutionary history under the drought-prone Mediterranean climate. Thus, utilization of the wild genes in wheat breeding programs promotes producing more yield for less water." "The wheat genome is much more complex than most of the other crops and has agenome four times the size of a human genome." said Dr. Gil Ronen, NRGene's CEO. "Still, the computational technology we developed has allowed us to quickly assemble the very large and complex genome found in Wild Emmer's 14 chromosomes to a standard never achieved before in genomic studies."

For the first time, the sequences of the 14 chromosomes of Wild Emmer wheat are collapsed into a refined order, thanks to additional technology that utilizes DNA and protein links. "It was originally tested in humans and recently demonstrated in barley, both of which have smaller genomes than Wild Emmer wheat," says Dr. Nils Stein, the Head of Genomics of Genetic Resources at Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research in Germany. "These innovative technologies have changed the game in assembling the large cereal genomes."

"This sequencing approach used for Wild Emmer wheat is unprecedented and has paved the way to sequence durum wheat (the domesticated form of Wild Emmer). Now we can better understand how humanity transformed this wild plant into a modern, high-yielding and high-quality crop," said Dr. Luigi Cattivelli, Head of the CREA Research Centre for Genomics and Bioinformatics (Italy) and coordinator of the International Durum Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium. "This Wild Emmer wheat sequencing and approach is an invaluable contribution to the entire wheat community to improve and better understand nutritional mechanisms," said Dr. Hikmet Budak, Montana Plant Science Endowed Chair at Montana State University. "We now have the tools to study crops directly and to make and apply our discoveries more efficiently than ever before," concluded Dr. Distelfeld.

Why Did Early Farmers Choose Wheat and Barley Over Other Grasses

According to the University of Sheffield: “Scientists, looking at why the first arable farmers chose to domesticate some cereal crops and not others, studied those that originated in the Fertile Crescent, an arc of land in western Asia from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. They grew wild versions of what are now staple foods like wheat and barley along with other grasses from the region to identify the traits that make some plants suitable for agriculture, including how much edible seed the grasses produced and their architecture. [Source: University of Sheffield, December 11, 2012]

“Dr Catherine Preece, who worked on the study with colleagues from the University’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and Department of Archaeology, said: “Our results surprised us because numerous other grasses that our ancestors ate, but we do not, can produce just as much seed as wild wheat and barley. It is only when these plants are grown at high densities, similar to what we would find in fields, that the advantage of wild wheat and barley is revealed.” “The study identified two key characteristics shared by the wild relatives of current crop plants. Firstly they have bigger seeds, which means they grow into bigger seedlings and are able to get more than their fair share of light and nutrients, and secondly, as adult plants they are less bushy than other grasses and package their big seeds onto fewer stems. This means crop wild relatives perform better than the other wild grasses that they are competing with and are better at growing close together in fields, making them ideal for using in agriculture. Dr Preece said: “Before humans learnt how to farm, our ancestors ate a much wider variety of grasses. If we can understand what traits have made some grasses into good crops then we can look for those characteristics in other plants and perhaps identify good candidates for future domestication.”

Which Came First Beer or Bread?

No one knows why man made the switch to agriculture. There at least three dozen major theories. One, the beer theory, argues that people decided to settle down and grow grain so they sit around and drink beer together in small villages. Forty percent of the wheat from Sumerian harvest went to make beer.

Neolithic food consisted of barley bread, beer, and likely a variety of meat and grain dishes. The oldest barley beer have been dated to 3400 B.C. The date was determined by analyzing samples of beer extracted from ancient jars with solvents.

Archaeologists debate which came first bread or beer. Beer starts with sprouted barley, which is moistened and allowed to geminate, a process called malting which converts starches into fermentable sugar called maltose.

Maltose can be fermented producing alcohol as one its byproducts. The same yeast used in fermenting can also be used to make bread. Consuming maltose was one way barley could be consumed without it being hulled, cracked or milled.

Sorghum, the World's First Crop?

sorghum field

Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) is a versatile grass originating from Africa. A close relative of millet and used for thousands of years by prehistoric peoples, The origin and early domestication of sorghum took place in Northeastern Africa. The earliest known record of sorghum comes from an archeological dig at Nabta Playa, near the Egyptian-Sudanese border, dated 8,000 B.C. Sorghum spread throughout Africa, and along the way, adapted to a wide range of environments from the highlands of Ethiopia to the semi-arid Sahel. [Source:]

According to the abstract for “Sorghum in the Economy of the Early Neolithic Nomadic Tribes at Nabta Playa, Southern Egypt” by Krystyna Wasylikowa and Jeff Dahlberg: “The 8000 years old early neolithic site E-75-6 at Nabta Playa, southern Egypt, yielded charred plant remains of over 120 taxa. Several species of edible plants were recovered, many of which are still gathered for food in the Sahara today. The in-site distribution of plant remains indicated the use of four different sets of plants by people living in various huts and pits, which may relate to the dominance of these plants in the local vegetation stands. The distribution of sorghum differed from that of the other edible plants, probably reflecting its special significance for the inhabitants of the site. The sorghum grains were morphologically wild, and could have been collected from natural stands, or irregularly cultivated with the décrue technique. This early cultivation did not lead to domestication, but provides early evidence for the human skill of cultivating such useful plants.

Nabta Playa was once a large internally drained basin in the Nubian Desert, located approximately 800 kilometers south of modern-day Cairo or about 100 kilometers west of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt. Archaeological findings may indicate human occupation in the region dating to at least somewhere around the 10th and 8th millennia B.C., when the Sahara was relatively green and received significant rain and the part of Nubian desert was occupied by a large lake. Fred Wendorf, the site's discoverer, and ethno-linguist Christopher Ehret have suggested that the people who occupied this region at that time were early pastoralists, or maybe practiced semi-pastoralism. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The people of that time consumed and stored wild sorghum, and used ceramics adorned by complicated painted patterns created perhaps by using combs made from fish bone and which belong to a general pottery tradition strongly associated with the southern parts of the sahara (e.g., of the Khartoum mesolithic and various contemporary sites in Chad) of that period. Analysis of human remains by Fred Wendorf and reported in "Holocene Settlement of the Egyptian Sahara", based on osteological data suggests a subsaharan origin for the site's inhabitants. +

By the 7th millennium B.C. exceedingly large and organized settlements were found in the region, relying on deep wells for sources of water. Huts were constructed in straight rows. Sustenance included fruit, legumes, millets, sorghum and tubers. Also in the late 7th millennium B.C. but a little later than the time referred to above, imported goats and sheep, apparently from Western Asia, appear. Many large hearths also appear. +

Evidence of Sorghum Domestication from 5500 Years Ago

Sorghum was domesticated from its wild ancestor more than 5,000 years ago, according to archaeological evidence uncovered by University College London archaeologist Dorian Fuller and colleagues in Sudan. Science News reported: For a half century scientists have hypothesized that native African groups were domesticating sorghum outside the winter rainfall zone of the ancient Egyptian Nile Valley — where wheat and barley cereals were predominant — in the semi-arid tropics of Africa, but no archaeological evidence existed. The newest evidence comes from an archaeological site near Kassala in eastern Sudan, dating from 3500 to 3000 BC, and is associated with the Butana Group culture. The research is published in the journal Current Anthropology.[Source: Science News, September 28, 2017]

“This new discovery in eastern Sudan reveals that during the 4th millennium BC, peoples of the Butana Group were intensively cultivating wild stands of sorghum until they began to change the plant genetically into domesticated morphotypes,” Dr. Fuller and co-authors said. The researchers examined plant impressions within broken pottery from the largest Butana Group site, KG23. “Ceramic sherds recovered from excavations undertaken by the Southern Methodist University Butana Project during the 1980s from the KG23 site were analyzed,” they explained.

“Examination of the plant impressions in the pottery revealed diagnostic chaff in which both domesticated and wild sorghum types were identified, thus providing archaeobotanical evidence for the beginnings of cultivation and emergence of domesticated characteristics within sorghum during the 4th millennium BC in eastern Sudan.” Along with the recent discovery of domesticated pearl millet in eastern Mali around 2500 BC, this discovery pushes back the process for domesticating summer rainfall cereals another thousand years in the Sahel, with sorghum, providing new evidence for the earliest known native African cultigen,” they said.

Cave Full of 100,000-Year-Old Sorghum-Like Grasses

Location of Ngalue

Professor Julio Mercader, of the University of Calgary, has found evidence in a Mozambique cave that Homo Sapiens were eating wild grains as early as 100,000 years ago. The discovery is reported in the journal Science. It's being touted as the “earliest direct evidence of humans using pre-domesticated cereals anywhere in the world," in a university press release. [Source: Owen Jarus, Heritage Key, December 18, 2009 -]

Owen Jarus wrote in Heritage Key, “Scientists have long believed that grains played little role in the Stone Age diet. This belief is fueled by the fact that it's difficult to process grain using the tools of the time. The cave that Mercader excavated had a layer that was used by people from 105,000 years ago to 42,000 years ago. In it there was a vast number of tools. Mercader took a sample of 70 from this assemblage. In particular he picked out the tools that could best be used to prepare Stone Age cereal. “These include cobble-sized core implements that have the right size and weight to be used as grinders of vegetable material: Cores and core scrapers make up more than one-third of the entire assemblage. Special pieces include a rhyolite grinder/core axe, a ground cobble, and a faceted quartz mortar," he said in his journal article. -

Brendan Borrell wrote in Nature: “Mercader first discovered the Ngalue cave, in the sparsely populated Niassa province of Mozambique, with the help of locals in 2005. After a drive to the end of a road at an old mine site, he and his team then had to hike for 45 minutes to reach the cave’s mouth. In 2007, the team made this trip every day as they excavated in a dark chamber 20 metres from the cave entrance, identifying animal bones along with more than 500 quartz artefacts.” [Source: Brendan Borrell, Nature, December 17, 2009 /::]

“Mercader says that he has always taken precautions not to wash or touch the excavated tools to ensure that he leaves pollens, starches and other microfossils intact. After examining 70 stone tools, including scrapers and grinders, he found that 80 percent contained traces of starch granules, mainly from wild Sorghum species. Some of the grains appeared damaged, but none had been cooked. “These data imply that early Homo sapiens from southern Africa consumed not just underground plant staples, but above-ground resources too.”

Millet First Domesticated in China 10,000 Years Ago

Millet is a hard cereal that resembles a cat tail with wheat-like stalks growing out of it. Although virtually unknown in North America and western Europe, it is eaten by millions of people, many of them very poor, in semiarid regions of tropical Africa and Asia.The earliest identified crops in China were two drought-resistant species of millet in the north and rice in the south. Domesticated millet was produced in China by 6000 B.C. Most ancient Chinese ate millet before they ate rice.


Research analysis in “Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10,000 years ago” concluded that “the earliest significant common millet cultivation system was established in the semiarid regions of China by 10,000 cal yr BP, and that the relatively dry condition in the early Holocene may have been favorable for the domestication of common millet over foxtail millet. Our study shows that common millet appeared as a staple crop in northern China ̃10,000 years ago, suggesting that common millet might have been domesticated independently in this area and later spread to Russia, India, the Middle East, and Europe. Nevertheless, like Mesopotamia, where the spread of wheat and barley to the fertile floodplains of the Lower Tigris and Euphrates was a key factor in the emergence of civilization, the spread of common millet to the more productive regions of the Yellow River and its tributaries provided the essential food surplus that later permitted the development of social complexity in the Chinese civilization." [Source: “Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10,000 years ago” by Houyuan Lua, Jianping Zhanga, Kam-biu Liub, Naiqin Wua, Yumei Lic, Kunshu Zhoua, Maolin Yed, Tianyu Zhange, Haijiang Zhange, Xiaoyan Yangf, Licheng Shene, Deke Xua and Quan Lia. Edited by Dolores R. Piperno, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and National Museum of Natural History, Washington, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 17, 2009 ++]

The above study reported “the discovery of husk phytoliths and biomolecular components identifiable solely as common millet from newly excavated storage pits at the Neolithic Cishan site, China, dated to between ca. 10,300 and ca. 8,700 calibrated years before present (cal yr BP). After ca. 8,700 cal yr BP, the grain crops began to contain a small quantity of foxtail millet. Our research reveals that the common millet was the earliest dry farming crop in East Asia, which is probably attributed to its excellent resistance to drought." [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ++]

“Foxtail millet (Setaria italica) and common millet (or broomcorn millet; Panicum miliaceum) were among the world's most important and ancient domesticated crops. They were staple foods in the semiarid regions of East Asia (China, Japan, Russia, India, and Korea) and even in the entire Eurasian continent before the popularity of rice and wheat, and are still important foods in these regions today." ++

Barely and Wheat Head East and Millet Heads West 5,200 Years Ago

One of the most impactful effects of ancient cultural dispersal along what is now called the Silk Road was the westward spread of northeast Asian crops and the eastward spread of southwest Asian crops. A 2020 study led by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, provides details of recently recovered ancient grains from the far northern regions of Inner Asia. Radiocarbon dating shows that the grains include the oldest examples of wheat and barley ever recovered this far north in Asia, pushing back the dates for early farming in the region by at least a millenium. These are also the earliest domesticated plants reported from the northern half of Central Asia, the core of the ancient exchange corridor. This study pulls together sedimentary pollen and ancient wood charcoal data with archaeobotanical remains from the Tiangtian archaeological site in the Chinese Altai Mountains to reveal how humans cultivated crops at such northern latitudes. This study illustrates how adaptable ancient crop plants were to new ecological constraints and how human cultural practices allowed people to survive in unpredictable environments. [Source: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History,, Eurekalert, February 14, 2020

The ancient relatives of wheat and barley plants evolved to grow in the warm and dry climate of the eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia. However, this study illustrates that ancient peoples were cultivating these grasses over five and a half thousand kilometers to the northeast of where they originally evolved to grow. In this study, Dr. Xinying Zhou and his colleagues integrate paleoenvironmental proxies to determine how extreme the ecology was around the archaeological cave site of Tangtian more than five millennia ago, at the time of its occupation. The site is located high in the Altai Mountains on a cold,dry landscape today; however, the study shows that the ecological setting around the site was slightly warmer and more humid at the time when people lived in and around this cave.

The slightly warmer regional conditions were likely the result of shifting air masses bringing warmer, wetter air from the south. In addition to early farmers using a specific regional climate pocket to grow crops in North Asia, analysis showed that the crops they grew evolved to survive in such northern regions. The results of this study provide scholars with evidence for when certain evolutionary changes in these grasses occurred, including changes in the programed reliance of day length, which signals to the plant when to flower, and a greater resistance to cold climates.

The ancient dispersal of crops across Inner Asia has received a lot of attention from biologists and archaeologists in recent years; as Dr. Spengler, one of the study’s lead authors, discusses in his recent book Fruit from the Sands, these ancient exchange routes shaped the course of human history. The mingling of crops originating from opposite ends of Asia resulted in the crop-rotation cycles that fueled demographic growth and led to imperial formation. East Asian millets would become one of the most important crops in ancient Europe and wheat would become one of the most important crops in East Asia by the Han Dynasty. While the long tradition of rice cultivation in East Asia made rice a staple of the Asian kitchen, Chinese cuisine would be unrecognizable without wheat-based food items like steamed buns, dumplings, and noodles. The discovery that these plants dispersed across Eurasia earlier than previously understood will have lasting impacts on the study of cultivation and labor practices in ancient Eurasia, as well as the history cultural contact and shifts in culinary systems throughout time.

These new discoveries provide reason to question these views, and seem to suggest that mixed small-scale human populations made major contributions to world history through migration and cultural and technological exchange. “This study not only presents the earliest dates for domesticated grains in far North Asia,” says Professor Xiaoqiang Li, director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, “it represents the earliest beginning of a trans-Eurasian exchange that would eventually develop into the great Silk Road”.

Dr. Xinying Zhou, who headed the study and directs a research team at the IVPP in Beijing, emphasizes that “this discovery is a testament to human ingenuity and the amazing coevolutionary bond between people and the plants that they maintain in their cultivated fields.”

World's Oldest Rice

Carbonized rice grains found near the Yellow River and Yangtze River in China, dated between 10,500 and 12,000 years ago, are considered by some to be the world's oldest rice. In 2003, South Korean researchers said they had found 15,000-year-old burnt rice grains at a site in South Korea, claiming it was evidence of the world's oldest rice and challenging the idea that rice was first cultivated in China.

The Jiahu site in China yielded domesticated rice, dated to 7000 B.C. The rice was a kind of short-grained japonica rice. Scholars had previously thought the earliest domesticated rice belonged to the long-grain indica subspecies. Other early evidence of rice farming comes from a 7000-year-old archeological site near the lower Yangtze River village of Hemudu in Zheijiang Province. When the rice grains were found there they were white but exposure to air turned them black in a matter minutes. These grains can now be seen at a museum in Hemudu. Some 8,000-year-old rice grains have been discovered in Changsa in the Hunan Province.

rice grains from the Tainluoshan site

According to an article called “The earliest rice domestication in China“: “The earliest rice remains (wild first and domesticated later) were found at Yuchanyan (Yuan 2002), Diaotonghuan (Zhao 1998), and Shangshan along the Yangze River, dating to 15 000-9000 cal BP ["calibrated years" before present using radiocarbon dating]. Jiahu [a famous Chinese Neolithic site] indicates habitual use of cultivated rice in northern regions by 9000 cal BP. [Source: “The earliest rice domestication in China“, Antiquity Vol 81 No 313 September 2007]

Stephen Chen wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Excavation sites along the Yantze River such as Hemudu in Yuyao, Zhejiang, provided the earliest evidence of the growing, storage and cooking of rice. Carbon dating shows rice was already the main staple in China more than 8,000 years ago. Some previous studies, such as one led by Professor Susan McCouch of Cornell University in 2007, suggested that rice was domesticated in the warm and humid plains at the southern foot of Himalayas. Dr Xie Fangming, a senior scientist researching hybrid rice at the International Rice Research Institute at Los Banos, in the Philippines, said, “Previous studies have accumulated solid evidence of rice's Himalayan origin. [Source: Stephen Chen, South China Morning Post, May 4, 2011 ^=^]

Zhao Zhijun wrote: “Rice remains from the Shangshan site, dated to ca. 10,000 cal. B.P., suggest the beginning of rice cultivation regardless of whether that rice was domesticated or not...The ongoing excavation, with floatation and water-sieving, at the Tianluoshan site, dated to 6,000 to 7,000 cal. B.P., suggests that rice farming, though important, was only part of a broader subsistence pattern of the Hemudu Culture, and rice domestication culminated after 6,500 B.P and the beginning of rice domestication remain unclear."

First Corn

Most scientists believe that corn (maize) originated from teosinte a weedy wild grass still found in remote areas of Mexico that has inch-long "ears" and look more like wheat than corn. Some scientists believe it comes from criollo, a plant native to a remote region of Sierre Norte de Oaxaca in Mexico, or cornlike plant that has since become extinct. Primitive corncobs from these plants found in a Oaxaca cave were dated to 6,300 B.C. In 2001, based of DNA studies, scientists concluded that corn did in fact evolve from teosinte. It is believed that ancient people in southern Mexico and Central America began harvesting grains from wild teosinte about 10,000 years ago. Through selective breeding these plants developed large stalks and seeds and eventually these became the cobs we associate with corn today.

Jessica Boddy wrote in Science: ““The first glimpses of maize domestication came in the 1960s, when esteemed U.S. archaeologist Richard MacNeish excavated at caves in Mexico’s Tehuacán Valley, a center of early Mesoamerican agriculture. In the dry, dark environment there, he found tiny, well-preserved maize cobs dated to roughly 5300 years ago and harboring only 50 kernels each, compared with the 1000 on modern cobs.” [Source: Jessica Boddy, Science, November 21, 2016]

Most historians believe corn was domesticated in the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico or the the adjacent Balsas River Valley of south-central Mexico An influential 2002 study by Matsuoka et al. demonstrated that, rather than the multiple independent domestications model, all maize arose from a single domestication in southern Mexico about 9,000 years ago. The study also demonstrated that the oldest surviving maize types are those of the Mexican highlands. Later, maize spread from this region over the Americas along two major paths. This is consistent with a model based on the archaeological record suggesting that maize diversified in the highlands of Mexico before spreading to the lowlands. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Archaeologist Dolores Piperno said: “A large corpus of data indicates that it [maize] was dispersed into lower Central America by 7600 BP [5600 BC] and had moved into the inter-Andean valleys of Colombia between 7000 and 6000 BP [5000–4000 BC]. [Source: Dolores Piperno, “The Origins of Plant Cultivation and Domestication in the New World Tropics: Patterns, Process, and New Developments”]

Since then, even earlier dates have been published.According to a genetic study by Embrapa, corn cultivation was introduced in South America from Mexico, in two great waves: the first, more than 6000 years ago, spread through the Andes. Evidence of cultivation in Peru has been found dating to about 6700 years ago.The second wave, about 2000 years ago, through the lowlands of South America. +

Before domestication, maize plants grew only small, 25 millimetres (1 in) long corn cobs, and only one per plant. In Spielvogel's view, many centuries of artificial selection (rather than the current view that maize was exploited by interplanting with teosinte) by the indigenous people of the Americas resulted in the development of maize plants capable of growing several cobs per plant, which were usually several centimetres/inches long each. The Olmec and Maya cultivated maize in numerous varieties throughout Mesoamerica; they cooked, ground and processed it through nixtamalization. It was believed that beginning about 2500 BC, the crop spread through much of the Americas.

5000-Year-Old Cobs Show Corn Domestication

evolution of tesointe to corn

Jessica Boddy wrote in Science: “It wasn’t easy to make a meal of teosinte, a grass that was the ancient precursor to maize. Each cob was shorter than your little finger and harbored only about 12 kernels encased in rock-hard sheaths. But in a dramatic example of the power of domestication, beginning some 9000 years ago people in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest transformed teosinte into the many-kerneled maize that today feeds hundreds of millions around the world. Researchers had already identified a handful of genes involved in this transformation. Now, studies of ancient DNA by two independent research groups show what was happening to the plant’s genes mid-domestication, about 5000 years ago. The snapshot reveals exactly how the genetics changed over time as generations of people selected plants with their preferred traits. “These results sharpen the focus of what we know at this early period,” says Michael Blake, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, who was not involved in the work. “They have implications for understanding later developments in maize domestication and help us to see what people were selecting for at the time.” [Source: Jessica Boddy, Science, November 21, 2016 ++/]

“After the advent of modern sequencing tools, geneticist Jean Philippe Vielle-Calzada at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Irapuato, Mexico, and his colleagues wanted to find out which genes the ancient domesticators had unwittingly been selecting. But he worried that MacNeish’s specimens, now in museums, might have been damaged by handling or improper storage. So he and his team decided to go back to the caves in Tehuacán Valley. Macneish had died, but one of his former students, Angel Garcia Cook, served as guide. “He had all the maps, he knew where to dig,” Vielle-Calzada says. “He went back with us at 73 years old. When he went the first time he was 21.” ++/

“The team discovered several new specimens, dated to about 5000 years ago, from San Marcos cave. They applied shotgun sequencing to three cobs, extracting DNA and breaking it up into short fragments for sequencing. Computer software then reassembled these DNA snippets, eventually reconstructing more than 35% of the ancient maize genome. ++/

“Vielle-Calzada’s team identified eight genes influencing key traits, as they wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. The cobs carried the modern variants of tb1, which simplified the plant’s branching for easier harvest, and bt2, which helped boost the starch content and sweetness of the kernels. But the cobs had the teosinte variant of tga1, which encloses the kernels in those hard sheaths—a sign that domestication was only partial. ++/

“Meanwhile, archaeologist Nathan Wales of the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues discovered MacNeish’s original samples, stored for 60 years in a museum in Andover, Massachusetts. He and his colleagues shotgun sequenced the genome of a 5300-year-old cob called Tehuacan162. Wales’s team was able to sequence 21% of this cob’s genome. Their results confirmed and complemented those of Vielle-Calzada’s team. The museum cob also had modern variants of td1 and bt2, as reported in Current Biology last week. But Tehuacan162 also had a more modern variant of the gene tga1, which partly released kernels from their rigid shells, making them easier to eat. Wales’s team also found a teosinte gene not seen by the Mexican team: zagl1, which makes kernels fall from the cob very easily. That’s useful for wild plants spreading their seeds, but frustrating for humans trying to harvest them. These differences may reflect the fact that Tehuacan162 came from a different population of maize, and show that domestication was still in progress in the valley, the researchers say. ++/

“Vielle-Calzada was shocked at the teams’ similar results. “I’m really amazed to see how convergent the results are,” he says. “This is unusual in paleogenomics where it’s difficult to get good data from old DNA. This is encouraging.” Robert Hard, an archaeologist at the University of Texas in San Antonio, agrees: “It’s remarkable how these studies support each other,” he says. That’s a good sign that future sequencing can fill in more details, he says. “It’s really important that we recognize the significance of transformations in maize,” Blake says, adding that knowledge of how certain traits helped maize adapt to drought and disease in the past could help save it from disasters in the future.” ++/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Middle East spread map University of Chicago

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2022

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