Cereal Crops ( 4th Century BC )

Agriculture was very important in ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  In the fourth millennium BC this area was more temperate than it is today, and it was blessed with fertile soil, two great river, as well as hills and mountains to the north.

This map shows the location and extent of the Fertile Crescent, a region in the Middle East incorporating ancient Egypt; the Levant; and Mesopotamia.
This map shows the location and extent of the Fertile Crescent, a region in the Middle East incorporating ancient Egypt; the Levant; and Mesopotamia.

image source: http://www.ancient.eu/image/169/

what are cereals?

A cereal is any grass cultivated for the edible components of its grain (botanically, a type of fruit called a caryopsis), composed of the endosperm, germ, and bran.

The word cereal derives from Ceres, the name of the Roman goddess of harvest and agriculture.

In their natural form (as in whole grain), they are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, oils, and protein. When refined by the removal of the bran and germ, the remaining endosperm is mostly carbohydrate. In some developing nations, grain in the form of rice, wheat, millet, or maize constitutes a majority of daily sustenance.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cereal

The one on the left is wild wheat, the one on the right is domesticated wheat.
The one on the left is wild wheat, the one on the right is domesticated wheat.

image source: https://winberryacademy.wordpress.com/author/winberryfamily/page/2/

Which were the first cultivated cereals ?

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 sorghumevolved a common ancestor weed that grew 65 million years ago.

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.

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.

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.

Source: http://factsanddetails.com/world/cat56/sub363/item1513.html

Einkorn Ancient Grain
Einkorn Ancient Grain

image source: http://www.tropicaltraditions.com/traditional-food/traditional-flours/glyphosate-tested-einkorn-flour.html

In Babylonia, Assyria, and the Hittite lands, barley was the main grain for human use: It was a widely used form of payment, and flat bread was made from barley. The smallest unit of weight was the equivalent of one grain (1/22 g). Beer and luxury foods were made from wheat and emmer.
Other agricultural products include sesame (derived from the Akkadian word šamaššammu), which was widely cultivated and used to make oil. Olive oil was produced in the mountains. Flax was used to make linen cloth. Peas were cultivated in Mesopotamia, while lentils were preferred in Palestine. Figs, pomegranate, apple, and pistachio groves were found throughout the Fertile Crescent. In villages and cities of southern Mesopotamia groves of date palms were common. The dates were eaten either fresh or dried, and palm wood was also used in crafts, but not in construction.

Source: http://www.ancient.eu/article/9/

What tools were used for planting and harvesting ?

Sowing, or planting, of the seeds was originally done by digging holes in the ground with sticks. Understandably, this took a long time, so farmers searched for ways to plant even faster. Soon the sticks were given handles and arranged in a V-shape. The bottom of the “V” would scrape into the ground so that a long ditch could be dug. The seeds would fall into the ditch. This new device was the earliest form of the plow. Farmers could now walk from one side of the field to the other without having to bend down to break the soil. Pushing the plow through the thick, dry land was still very labor intensive, so the Mesopotamians devised a way for animals to pull the plow down the field.
Beasts of burden, such as cattle and oxen, were soon attached to the plow. This allowed greater force to be applied to the soil. Attaching animals also allowed for faster sowing of seeds. The efforts of the animals made the work less physically tiring for the farmer. The farmer needed only to walk behind the plow and steer it for greater precision.

Source: http://westada.org/cms/lib8/ID01904074/Centricity/Domain/2825/Mesopotamian_Farming_Tools.pdf

Early plows were made from wood. Later plows had copper parts, which broke up hard soil better.
Early plows were made from wood. Later
plows had copper parts, which broke up
hard soil better.

image source: http://cedarposts.blogspot.it/2016/01/georgia-hotness-abigail-kemp-in-world.html

When it came time to harvest, farmers would use a sickle to cut down sheaves, or bundles, of wheat. A sickle is a curved blade attached to a handle. It can cut down dozens of stalks of grain with one stroke of the arm. Some of the first sickles had blades made out of flint or polished stone. Later, farmers learned how to mold metals like copper and bronze.
This helped to make tools more durable and efficient. Without sickles, wheat and other crops would have to be cut down or plucked only a few stalks at a time. Cutting down the crops could now be faster and less physically tiring.
To carry the freshly cut harvest back to the settlement, Mesopotamians used baskets made out of reeds. Reeds grew abundantly in the marshes of the rivers. They provided excellent material for collecting and carrying goods from the field. Reeds also quickly grew back. They grew naturally in the area and did not have to be planted, watered, or harvested. All of these factors made reeds a valuable resource.
Back at the settlement, the harvest crop would begin its transformation toward the next day’s meal. Stones were used to grind grains into flour and meats into smaller, edible pieces. Sometimes grains would be crushed between two stones. Other times a stone mortar and pestle were used. A mortar is a round, solid bowl. A pestle is a thick, baseball bat-shaped object that grinds food or plants against the inside of the mortar. The mortar and pestle did not fade away over time, and they have not changed much either. The two utensils are still found in kitchens around the world today.

Source: http://westada.org/cms/lib8/ID01904074/Centricity/Domain/2825/Mesopotamian_Farming_Tools.pdf

A mortar and pestle were used to grind foods like seeds into small pieces or powder.
A mortar and pestle were used to grind
foods like seeds into small pieces or

image source: http://www.kmart.com/casa-maria-8-1-2-inch-natural-stone-mortar/p-011W008400250001P

How did the  irrigation system worked ?

Mesopotamia was originally swampy in some areas and dry in others. The climate was too hot and dry in most places to raise crops without some assistance. The  farmers needed to know 3 main tasks:

  • how to concretate desirable plants into manigable areas.
  • how to prevent weeds from growing there
  • how best to encourage the plants to flourish

The most important method is that they delivered water to the land for farming uses or canals, ditches. Mesopotamians developed irrigation agriculture. To irrigate the land, the earliest inhabitants of the region drained the swampy lands and built canals through the dry areas. This had been done in other places before Mesopotamian times. What made Mesopotamia the home of the first irrigation culture is that the irrigation system was built according to a plan, and an organized work force was required to keep the system maintained. The Sumerians initiated a large scale irrigation program. They built huge embankments along the Euphrates River, drained the marshes and dug irrigation ditches and canals. It not only took great amount of organized labor to build the system it also required a great amount of labor to keep it maintained. Government and laws were created distribute water to make sure the operation ran smoothly.

The Mesopotamia kingdoms were ravaged by wars and hurt by changing watercourse and the salinization of farmland.

The early Mesopotamian civilizations are believed to have fallen because salt accruing from irrigated water turned fertile land into a salt desert. Continuous irrigation raised the ground water, capillary action (the ability of a liquid to flow against gravity where liquid spontaneously rises in a narrow space such as between grains of sand and soil), brought the salts to the surface, poisoning the soil and make it useless for growing wheat. Barley is more salt resistant than wheat. It was grown in less damaged areas. The fertile soil turned to sand by drought and the changing course of the Euphrates that today is several miles away from Ur and Nippur.

Source: http://factsanddetails.com/world/cat56/sub363/item1513.html

Irrigation system model in Mesopotamia
Irrigation system model in Mesopotamia

image source: http://sumer2sargon.blogspot.it/p/history.html

How was the grain stored?

Harvest required significant manpower, as there was immense time pressure on completing the harvest before winter set in. Grain was cut with a sickle, dried in shacks, and threshed by driving animals over it to “tread out” the grain. The grain was then either stored in granaries, or transported away along the waterways (sometimes even exported to other countries). In the granaries, cats and mongooses were used to protect the store from mice.

Source: http://www.ancient.eu/article/9/


info sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cereal