How humans became slaves to wheat

The story of one of the oldest crops in the world

W is for… Wheat. In his seminal book Sapians: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari posits that, with the advent of agriculture, humans went from being the masters of their food to its servants. Farming meant that previously nomadic tribes had to stay in the same place. The lack of dietary diversity that resulted increased the risk of malnutrition (although decreased the threat of starvation), while the practice of farming meant a life of drudgery and toil.

And what was it that condemned humankind to a life of slavery and sloth? Why, wheat, of course. The grain is one of the oldest crops in the world. The oldest traces of it date back to 9,600BC and are from the Karacadag Mountains in Turkey. Humans may even have cultivated it before then; certainly, from that point on, wheat became the mainstay of the human diet.

Another unsettling irony about wheat: the variant that was grown then, and that we still grow today, cannot survive in the wild. It has a tough rachi (the bit that attaches the seeds to the ear), meaning that it cannot disperse itself naturally – it has to have human sowing. Wheat is GM in its earliest incarnation; a wild grass that we have tamed so much it can no longer self-perpetuate.

Nevertheless, wheat has been ‘wildly’ popular since ancient times. From the Neolithic period, wheat spread globally. From the Turkish mountains, and the Damascus basin, it reached Greece, Cyprus and India by 6,500 BC, and Egypt five hundred years later. After another millennia it had come to Germany and the Iberian Peninsula. The earliest traces of wheat in these shores date to 3,000BC; not long after, it was in Scandinavia. By the time it reached China in 2,000BC it was the dominant grain of the world.

And thus it has remained ever since. Today, wheat crops cover more land than any other; its trade is greater than all other crops combined. It can grow from the equator to the Arctic, from sea level to mountain plains 13,000ft high. We eat wheat daily, in bread, pasta, biscuits, porridge, cakes, gravy, cereal, noodles and pastry. It was used to thatch houses in Britain from the bronze age to the eighteenth century; it is in beer; it can lower the risk of heart disease and strokes, cancer and type two diabetes. No wonder it is the leading source of food for the world. In 2016, 749 million tonnes were produced.

This omnipresence finds its echo in cultures and religions. In Deuteronomy, the Jews are promised ‘a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey.’ And of course the Eucharist – the body of Christ – is bread. In Ancient Egypt, Osiris, the god of the underworld, was associated with wheat; models of him were made with sheafs, and small ‘wheat bags’ were left as offerings for him. For the Greeks, Demeter is the goddess of the harvests, particularly wheat, as in The Tempest’s ‘rich leas of wheat.’

Wheat appears in the poems of Lord Tennyson and the films of Terence Malick, the novels of John Steinbeck and Chinese carvings. We sort the wheat from the chaff. David Cameron compared prime ministerial terms to Shredded Wheat – ‘two are wonderful, but three might just be too many.’ St Ignatius said he was God’s wheat, ready to be ground by adversity to become pure bread of faith. For all the modern talk of wheat intolerance, its history is as old as we are. Let’s continue to break bread together far into the future.