The staff of life………….

It has been called the staff of life, it used to be the one food that could not be denied to a prisoner on a punishment diet, it was a slang term for money, it was not, as Sam Spade said, ‘the stuff that dreams are made of’, but it did something equally as powerful – it founded civilizations. It is – bread.

Around 8,000 BCE, in the Middle Eastern lands stretching from Mesopotamia in the east to Egypt in the west – now known as the ‘Fertile Crescent’ – a great change began. The tribes who lived in this region, and survived as hunter/gatherers, began to exploit wild grasses as foods on a regular basis. These ‘proto-cereals’ were first used casually, and then began to be planted, which initiated societal change. Tribes became more sedentary, as they needed to plant, nurture, harvest and even defend their fields. The grasses of the Poaceae family provided grains (consisting of endosperm and germ surrounded by a hard bran layer) which were of higher calorific value and offered better nutrition than almost every other crop. These were often hybridized to give even better yields and other properties. An ancient wheat, called emmer (Triticum dicoccum) was the main cereal in many parts of the area although in Mesopotamia, due to ground conditions, barley (Hordeum vulgare) formed the majority of plantings. Now, barley is an excellent seed grain for the production of alcohol, and it is thought that wild strains of the single-cell organisms, known as yeasts, would have been accidentally introduced to grain/water suspensions, leading to the discovery of ale! Ale – and beers made from other grains – was well-known in Mediaeval England, and was a much safer drink than the local water, as the ethyl alcohol produced by fermentation killed microbes (see, ‘small beer’ for children in that time period).

In Mesopotamia, by 3,000 BCE or so, the local peoples were drinking up to 5 litres of ale a day. Yeasts such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, will also cause bread dough to rise, and it is speculated that flatbread dough – the logical means of utilizing cracked or milled grain as a food source, and using flour produced in a hand-powered quern – was ‘infected’ with yeast from the wild or from an alcoholic drink, causing it to ‘rise’, and become much more tasty when baked.

Because of the fertility of the Crescent, it became possible for tribes to accumulate quite an excess of grain. Some of this had to be put aside as ‘seed corn’ for the following season’s plantings, but the majority was stored as a food source for the months ahead. At first storage was simple, usually in specially excavated pits, lined with a layer of impervious clay (or similar mineral) and fitted with an hermetically sealed lid to prevent ingress of insect and rodent pests and to guard against inadvertent germination. These pits were relatively small and numerous, so the contents could all be utilized before the grain spoiled. Above ground granaries, simple structures with a wooden post at each corner were developed; it is postulated that these were used to store seed corn, rather than grain for consumption. These changes seem to have initiated religious changes, too. Soon specific gods and goddesses were being associated with the cycles of planting and harvest.

By 2,900 BCE the Sumerian goddess Nissaba (sometimes, Nisaba) was being worshiped, as in the following text;

‘O Nisaba, good woman, fair woman, woman born in the mountains! . . .
[M]ay you be a heaper up of grain among the grain piles and in the grain stores!’

(Black,Jeremy; Cunningham, Graham; Robson, Eleanor; Gabor,Zolyomi, ‘The Literature of Ancient Sumer’ Oxford University Press, 2004)

There we see evidence of the some of the other societal changes. With an excess of grain, and sedentary life, came the need to store and organize it. This was one of the drivers towards basic accounting needs, written records (such as Cuneiform writing from c.3,000 BCE), and an administrative class. This could explain why Nisaba was also the patron deity of scribes and writing.

Because there was excess food supply in most years (and a store of grain to tide the people over during the bad years), it became possible, and even necessary, for both artisan and warrior classes to arise. Slowly, the ‘city state’ and Western civilization was born.

In the multitheistic society of Greece, the goddess Demeter ruled over the harvests, and was intimately bound up with this mainly agricultural society. Demeter was sometimes called Themophoros, a name associated with a female cult. We all know, of course, that the Romans adopted much of the Greek pantheon, merely re-naming the gods and goddesses. Demeter became Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain, hence this rather confusing quotation, from one of my favorite authors;

“she looked like the new statue on the Western Road – the Demeter of the Baskets, you know”, Rudyard Kipling, ‘A Centurion of the Thirtieth’

Why Kipling does not name this statue – supposedly located somewhere on the road from Londinium to Aquae Sulis – as Ceres is a little confusing!

Iron Age Britain had seen the cultivation of barley, emmer wheat and another ancient wheat, spelt (Triticum spelta). These last two grains were ‘hulled wheats’, in that they had a stronger surrounding casing, which required extra mechanical breaking to release the edible portion of the grain. They were stored in underground storage pits, and there is evidence that when emptied, the tribal peoples would sometimes make a sacrificial offering to the deity associated with the harvest, as skeletons of animals, and gifts of tools have been found in the back-filled pits.

Britain, for such a relatively small country, has a complex climate and ecology, brought about in part by both the presence of the tail end of Gulf Stream and the relative proximity of the Arctic Circle. Consequently, wheat (Triticum aestivum) grows well in the south of the island and barley is cultivated on poorer soils and in cooler climates as you travel north. By you time you reach Scotland, the dominant grain – in Neolithic times – was oats (Avena sativa).

It would seem that edible grain crops form the backbone on which our civilization is founded; the powerhouse which allowed the explosive growth of population and the construction of complex societies and belief systems. In ‘America, The Beautiful’, by Katharine Lee Bates, the line “..for amber waves of grain…” means a great deal.

Oh, and the bread rolls, cooling on the wire rack above? I cannot tell a lie, my own work – and a family recipe, of course!

One comment on “The staff of life………….”

  1. Bread is undervalued so this post of yours, and your research, is especially appreciated! You have me thinking of the granaries I’ve seen in the American Southwest. I recall my early attempts at breadmaking — thinking how hard can it be when the early people could do it daily — and was I humbled. Your rolls look wonderful on the rack and I imagine they take to butter and jam quite easily 🙂


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