The greatest proportion of the diet of the ancient Near East, as today, was supplied by cereals. These annual grasses were likely the first plants cultivated for food: the signs of domestication appear earliest for wheat and barley. Rye may also have been domesticated in the Near East (probably in Anatolia), though, like oats (whose origin is uncertain), it did not become a substantial crop. Millet cultivation appeared only in the first millennium BCE. Two other cereals, rice and sorghum, were transplanted from Asia and Africa, respectively, during the Hellenistic and Roman centuries.

Cereals were initially gathered from bounteous naturally occurring stands during the Epipaleolithic period for thousands of years prior to domestication. Gathering unconsciously selected for ears that resisted shattering, a crucial characteristic for the seed's dissemination among wild grains. Some carbonized seed remains from Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) villages show fracture patterns produced by human threshing rather than natural shattering—unambiguous proof of cultivation. What motivated the transition from cereal gathering in the wild to deliberate cultivation remains an open question. Nevertheless, human sowing, harvesting, and threshing cemented the shift to nonshattering (nonbrittle) ears and brought about other changes in growth habit (abandonment of germination inhibition so that seeds sprout upon planting at any time) and morphology (increased size of grains and decreased attachment of grains in their spikelets). Morphological changes permit paleoethnobotanists to differentiate between wild and domesticated types in the archaeological record. [See Ethnobotany; Paleobotany.] Because wheat and barley are self-pollinating, the changes wrought by domestication were more readily secured from one generation to the next.

Morphologically distinct cereals appear at about 9000 BCE: Netiv ha-Gedud and Gilgal in Israel's Jordan Valley have produced domesticated barley, as has Ganj Dareh in western Iran. [See Jordan Valley.] Domesticated wheat (einkorn and emmer, see below) occurs at the Syrian steppe region sites of Aswad and Abu Hureyra, as well as at Çayönü in Turkey. [See Çayönü.] Prior to this PPN emergence of farming, wild grain seeds are known from the Epipaleolithic period in Jordan at Abu Hureyra, to its north at Mureybet, and at Naḥal Oren on Israel's Mt. Carmel spur. [See Mureybet; Naḥal Oren.] Paleoethnobotanists can trace the subsequent spread of agriculture throughout the Near East and beyond. Before the end of the Neolithic period, villages cultivated grain on Cyprus and in Greece. [See Cyprus.] By the end of the third millennium, barley and wheat had spread throughout the western Mediterranean basin, the Nile Valley, and central Europe.

Seeds and floral parts are preserved predominantly in carbonized form, accidentally (over)heated but not burned. Occasionally, seed impressions are found in baked clay. More rarely, fully desiccated kernels are recovered. Vegetal remains are routinely retrieved through simple flotation, in which water is used to separate carbonized material from soil samples.


At the head of the cereal stalk stands the ear: an arrangement of flowers in a compound spike. The ear consists of spikelets arranged on a central axis or rachis. If brittle (shattering as in wild species), the ear breaks up into its component spikelets. If tough (nonshattering, as in most domesticated forms), the rachis remains intact until threshing, which produces random fractures. Thus, rachis fragments can be diagnostic of domestication. The spikelet contains the flower enfolded by the glumes, which can be strong and hold the grain tightly in the spikelet (glume wheats), or weak, permitting the grain to separate readily from the spikelet (free-threshing wheats). The floral parts themselves are surrounded by two protective layers (lemma and palea), which are either fused to the grain as it develops (hulled barley) or fail to adhere (naked barley). The grain itself is a layered structure in which the active seed is encased by a number of coats, the outermost of which is called the bran.

Wheat (Triticum L.).

Archaeological literature catalogs an assortment of wheats by a variety of names: the older literature possesses even more terminology, as the botanical classification scheme has been recently simplified. Three of the four chromosomally distinct species of wheat regularly appear in ancient Near Eastern contexts. Within each species, subspecies differentiate themselves by the characteristics of their glume attachment.

Einkorn (T. monococcum L.) varieties, both wild (subspecies boeoticum) and cultivated (subspecies monococcum), are diploid glume wheats. A crucial component of the earliest agriculture, einkorn's place in the village pantry gave way to more productive species. Better suited to poorer soils, einkorn does not have attractive rising qualities when baked as bread.

Emmer and durum (T. turgidum L.) appear as wild emmer (subspecies dicoccides), cultivated emmer (subspecies dicoccum), and durum (subspecies durum). These are tetraploid wheats that include both glume (emmer) and free-threshing varieties (durum). Emmer belongs to the preagricultural and early agricultural crop medley and constitutes the principal wheat of the prehistorical period. It continued to sustain Egypt until Hellenistic times. Durum (hard wheat, macaroni wheat) evolved from emmer early on and became the dominant wheat of the Mediterranean basin, probably because of its free-threshing quality.

Bread wheat and spelt (T. aestivum L.) appear in cultivated varieties only, likely derived from a cross between a wheat of the species turgidum and a wild grass; bread wheat (subspecies vulgare) and spelt (subspecies spelta) are hexaploid wheats. Bread (common, vulgar) wheat is free-threshing. Finds indicate its availability to Neolithic farmers. Apparently, bread wheat did not become an important crop in the Near East until modern times, perhaps because of its susceptibility to bird predation or seed loss during harvest. Spelt appeared in about 5000 BCE, but finds are numerous only in Europe.

Barley (Hordeum sativum var. or Hordeum vulgare L.).

Although terminological ambiguity exists, barley is taxonomically much simpler than wheat: a single diploid species with variants based on the number of grains that develop at each site on the rachis. Apart from the wild variety (H. spontaneum), the barleys also differentiate themselves on the basis of the fusion of the hull and the grain.

In two-row barley (H. sativum var. distichum) only one grain develops at each attachment on the rachis, resulting in two rows of fruitful spikelets, like its wild progenitor. Most two-row barleys are hulled. Their grains appear among the earliest cultivars at the inception of agriculture. Six-row barley (H. sativum var. hexistichum) also appeared early, yet subsequent to the two-row variety at a number of sites (e.g., Ali Kosh in southwest Iran). [See Ali Kosh.] The six rows are produced by three fertile spikelets at each attachment of the rachis and may have arisen as a mutation under irrigated conditions, which meet the water needs of the extra flowers. By the fourth millennium, it had replaced the two-row variety as the dominant cereal throughout Mesopotamia, presumably because of its higher yield. The occasional preservation of triplet spikelets and subtle differences in seed shape permit paleoethnobotanists to differentiate between the two varieties. Six-row also occurs as a naked grain (var. nudum) in the prehistorical periods but declines inexplicably later on.


Wheat demands better soil conditions than barley: well-drained clayey soils that hold more moisture and possess greater nitrogen content. Barley does better than wheat on less fertile soils and those with higher salinity or alkalinity and under more arid conditions. Both cereals are broadcast sown or deposited by dibbling or seed plow, usually after the tilling of the field in early winter (approximately November–January). Harrowing covers the seed, if broadcast. Repeated irrigations follow in Mesopotamia, while rain-fed agriculture hopes for abundant and well-timed precipitation. Weeding heightens yields, reduces undesirable seeds in the harvest, and provides a fodder resource.

Harvest takes place by uprooting or reaping with a sickle. Barley matures more rapidly than wheat, and its harvest is first. Thus, sowing both barley and wheat can serve to stretch the harvest season in order better to accommodate the labor supply. Sheaves are transported to the threshing floor, and the stalks are beaten, trampled, or sledged to separate ears from straw and to disarticulate the ears. Raking and winnowing ensue, successively refining the product, followed by various grades of sieving. The grain is then packed for transport and storage.

Archaeology can identify numerous tools and installations employed in grain growing. These include plowpoints, hoes, sickles and sickle blades, threshing floors, and storage facilities such as pithoi, stone-lined or plastered grain pits, silos, and granaries. [See Granaries and Silos.]

Depending upon the species of grain, a variable number of additional steps intercede before consumption. Kernels of glume wheats must be removed from the spikelets. This process normally involves parching in an oven. The brittle chaff is then broken away by pounding in a mortar. Additional episodes of sieving and hand sorting result in clean grain ready for food preparation. Free-threshing wheat and barley obviate parching and pounding. The most common species of barley, however, requires dehulling for most foods. The hull is removed by pounding moistened kernels. Sieving cleans the grain from the husks. Freed of spikelets and hulls, cereals are processed into a huge variety of foodstuffs, from bulgur to bread and porridge to beer. Mortars and pestles, cooking pots, ovens, bread molds, beer strainers, and saddle querns are notable artifacts of grain processing.

The ancient Near East's preoccupation with cereals extends beyond their cultivation, of course, to their control. Its agrarian societies were based chiefly on the wealth of cereal fields. Grains were the fundamental building block of the economy and principal medium of taxation as well. Cereal production and distribution also underlie an enormous range of ideas and their literary and artistic expression.

[See also Agriculture.]


  • Charles, M. P. “Introductory Remarks on the Cereals.” Bulletin on Sumerian Agriculture 1 (1984): 17–31. Compact and lucid treatment of botanical terminology and characteristics of wheat and barley.
  • Hillman, Gordon. “Traditional Husbandry and Processing of Archaic Cereals in Recent Times: The Operations, Products, and Equipment which Might Feature in Sumerian Texts. Part I: The Glume Wheats,” and “Part II: The Free-Threshing Cereals.” Bulletin on Sumerian Agriculture 1 (1984): 114–152; 2 (1985): 1–31. Meticulous and detailed presentation of cereal production and processing, from fieldwork to food preparation, based on ethnographic work in Turkey.
  • Miller, Naomi F. “The Origins of Plant Cultivation in the Near East.” In The Origin of Agriculture: An International Perspective, edited by C. Wesley Cowan and Patty Jo Watson, pp. 39–58. Smithsonian Series in Archaeological Inquiry, 16. Washington, D.C., 1992. Review of the latest archaeobotanical finds, with an emphasis on the methodological aspects of theories of agricultural origins.
  • Renfrew, Jane M. Palaeoethnobotany: The Prehistoric Food Plants of the Near East and Europe. New York, 1973. Classic text introduces its discipline and discusses with illustrations each of the major genera and species of domesticated and edible wild plants, their origins, identification (with detailed morphology), cultivation, and use.
  • Zohary, Daniel, and Maria Hopf. The Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Cultivated Plants in West Asia, Europe, and the Nile Valley. 2d ed. Oxford, 1993. Synthesis of cropplant evolution combining data from archaeology and the distribution of living plants. Covers cereals, pulses, oil and fiber crops, fruit trees and nuts, vegetables and tubers, condiments and dyes, as well as wild fruits.

David C. Hopkins