Ancient Grains : a history of wheat

Six years ago when my my wife first approached me with the idea that we should stop eating wheat I was incredulous. “But, society was built on grains!” was my response. I thought back to my history lessons of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations as a defense for eating  wheat. If it weren’t for the domestication of ancient grains, I thought, we’d still be wandering as hunter gatherers. It’s true that the ancients’ cultivation of grains allowed for the amount of food necessary to support a large society. However, my interest in archaeology has revealed that the grain and dairy consumption of our ancestors is drastically different than modern eating habits.

While my wife has an interest in modern cooking, my hobby includes the study of Iron Age, Romano, and Saxon agriculture. My research focuses on ancient Britain (partly because the relevant literature is written in English), but parallels could be found in other ancient societies. My first couple posts on this subject will look at gluten and casein in ancient foods. If there is interest, I’ll expand to general info on ancient cooking, farming, etc.

Ancient Grains : Wheat

The wheat flour found in today’s supermarkets is overwhelmingly from the same species, Triticum aestivum. This single species is so ubiquitous that it has earned the common name “bread wheat.” There is also “club wheat,” which is really just a sub-species of the same. Tr. aestivum became the predominant wheat at the end of the Roman Empire (300s-400s AD, or so). It was popular because the plant was suited to intensive large-scale farming practices. Unlike the three ancient species, it can be easily threshed (removal of the grain from the husk), and it grows to a uniform height (making harvesting easier). Its high-gluten flour was good for baking. High gluten produces an elastic dough, which captures the yeast’s gas and bakes to a lighter and softer bread. In the past 2,000 years simple farmers and agricultural corporations have bred newer varieties, further increasing gluten levels.
From the Neolithic to Roman times three species of cultivated wheat were the focus of arable farming: einkorn, emmer, and spelt. These three grains have not experienced the same selective breeding that “improved” modern bread wheat. They exist today in much the same form as they were thousands of years ago. Please note: I am not advocating gluten intolerant people eat these grains. This article is meant only to show that the wheat which modern-day consumers find “normal” is far removed from the wheat that our ancestors ate.

IronAgeFarming

(An Iron Age British farm, illustrated by me)

Einkorn Wheat (Triticum monococcum)

Einkorn was the first wheat cultivated from the wild growing grasses of Asia Minor. It became widespread sometime around 10,000 BC. This was the wheat that supported the first Mesopotamian civilizations. Einkorn’s levels of protein, vitamin A, beta-carotene, lutein, riboflavin, are much higher than what is found in modern bread wheat, emmer, or spelt.(Ness) A 2006 study suggests that the Einkorn’s particular gluten does not aggravate those with celiac’s disease.(Pizzuti) Again, I am not endorsing this wheat to celiacs, but it is interesting to note. Update July 2013: I was interested to notice that Jovial company is now selling einkorn flour, cookies, and pasta in US health food stores.

Emmer Wheat (Triticum dioccum)

Shortly after einkorn was first cultivated, it was crossed with wild goat grasses to produce a new variety, emmer. Emmer wheat has been found in the pyramids of Egypt. It was the major wheat crop in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain. Emmer was the traditional bread wheat of the Roman army. Its flour does not rise very well, indicating low levels of gluten. The resulting loaf is a crumbly bread with a course heavy texture. Similar to oats, emmer wheat makes a very good porridge. (Alcock, p. 29)(Cool, p. 70) Its low gluten content made it a good wheat for cakes, just as “soft wheat” is used today.

Spelt (Triticum spelta)

A descendant of Emmer, spelt was developed sometime around 5,000 BC. Most archaeological examples have been found in Europe. This makes sense as it is more resistant to frost than emmer and einkorn. It arrived in Britain sometime around 700 BC and became the primary wheat grown in the late Iron Age and Roman-era. The gluten levels are higher than emmer, producing a good rising dough. Along with einkorn and emmer, spelt lost it’s appeal by the end of the Roman Empire. It continued to be grown in some areas of Germany and has enjoyed a resurgence in the modern-day health food market.

Conclusion

It is difficult to measure the precise amount of gluten found in the different varieties of wheat flour. Yet, simple bread-making makes it clear that the species of wheat popular among ancient peoples had a lower gluten content than our modern bread wheat. From the Neolithic to the Iron Age, the ancient British did not seem to have consumed the massive amounts of wheat typical today. The Romans certainly loved their bread. Indeed, baking was a specialized profession. After the Romans, Europeans were well on their way to the wheat-saturated diet of modern times. By the end of the 9th century AD, the Anglo-Saxon monk Aelfric wrote that without bread, “any table seems empty,” and “without bread all food seems unpalatable.”(Hagen)
—Andrew
P.S. My first draft included a whole bunch of numbers for the different wheats: percentages of total protein levels, percentages of gluten to other nutritional proteins, and ratios of the gliadin to glutenin (the pair of proteins that form wheat gluten), etc. That all got a bit confusing, and beyond the scope of what is meant to be a casual article. If you are interested in all that math, then I suggest you check out my references #1 and #4.
P.P.S. Kamut is marketed as an ancient wheat, but it is actually a brand name for a recently cultivated sub-species of modern bread wheat.

References
1. Abdel-Aal, Elsayed. Specialty Grains for Food and Feed Published by the American Association of Cereal Chemists. 2005.
2. Alcock, Joan P. Food in Roman Britain
3. Cool, H.E.M. Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain.
4. Hagen, Ann. Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink. Anglo Saxon Books, 2006.
5. Ness, Stan. “Types of Wheat: Nutritional Content & Health Benefits Comparison” on Einkorn.com. 2010.
6. Pizzuti, Daniella, et al. “Lack of intestinal mucosal toxicity of Triticum monococcum in celiac disease patients” in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology Volume 41, Issue 11 November 2006 , pages 1305 – 1311.

7. Reynolds, Peter J. Iron Age Farm: The Butser Experiment. Published by the British Museum, 1979.

Comments

  1. says

    thank you so much for writing this. i had only heard, anecdotaly that modern wheat is higher in gluten, i love seeing some of the facts here.

  2. says

    Thank you! I’ve only recently started avoiding wheat, and am finding it difficult to change my thinking. I was raised on fresh ground whole wheat, understanding that it was very good for us. Now, I’m learning it’s not quite as good as I thought…and that’s hard to comprehend sometimes. But this really helped!! Thank you!!! I plan to pass it on to a few other people that are struggling with the same things I’m working through.

  3. says

    I’m glad you all found the piece interesting. At parties when I tell people that I study ancient agriculture as a hobby, they just don’t know what to say. It must sound so boring. But, it’s cool right? My next article is about Celts, Romans and dairy.

  4. says

    Andrew & Kelly,
    This is VERY interesting to me. I always wonder how we used to eat, because we are so far removed from it. I would like to read more about this, but I am hesitant to read anything that hints of evolution (verses creation, I am refering to the 10,000 B.C. reference) because that makes me question the validity of everything else, believing that the world is around 6,000 years old.
    I have Sue Gregg’s cookcooks, and in Whole Grain Baking there is a lot of Bible references and information on grains, also very interesting.

  5. says

    Hi Kelli,

    The Iron Age, Roman, and Saxon food books I reference only deal with the 100s BC to the 800s AD. There is some discussion of farmers breeding livestock, but they don’t get into evolution. So, these books should appeal to everyone.

  6. says

    This is such an interesting article. I have always felt that too much forced breeding and genetic modification of wheat is the cause of intolerance in many people today. I can’t imagine it was too much of a problem with more ancient grains. I think this expands to all foods really. I mean, come on, fish DNA is tomatoes (over 90% of conventional have it these days)!
    Anyway, very good article!

  7. says

    This is so fascinating! I really enjoyed reading about the history of wheat. I love history in itself and being gluten intolerant really made this applicable!

    I’m looking forward to your next article with dairy! (I think you should definitely continue to enlighten us on food of the past!!!)

    Thanks! ~Aubree Cherie

  8. Anonymous says

    This is fantastic, Andrew! An incredible addition to a wonderful blog. I am a major food/language/culture nerd, and as a health coach I often have to answer that difficult question: why is gluten so bad for us now? This is really scratching me where I intellectually itch. I will read anything you write – bring on the food history! – Tina in Michigan

  9. says

    Thank you for such an informative post! I learned a lot in just a few minutes. I’m glad you did all the legwork so I could enjoy it!

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