Today, a new look at the birth of a very old
technology. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Scholars have been turning
their lenses back on the invention of farming. We
know farming began eight to ten thousand years ago
in the Middle East and the Holy Land. We also know
it began after certain wild wheats mutated.
The seeds of those wild grains weren't as fat and
rich as modern wheat, but they blew in the wind.
They sowed themselves. You could harvest them
without having to plant them.
Modern wheat was a fertile mutation of wild wheat.
It made much better food. But its seeds don't go
anywhere. They're bound more firmly to the stalk,
and they cannot ride the wind. Without farmers to
collect and sow wheat, it dies. Modern wheat
creates farming by wedding its own survival to that
of the farmer.
In 8000 B.C. the Natufians -- a
hunting-gathering people -- lived in the region
around Jericho and the Dead Sea. They were first to
cultivate this new mutation -- this modern wheat.
They became the first farmers.
By then, the climate had been warming for 2000
years. Once the area had been fairly lush. Now it
grew arid. Game moved north. The vegetation
changed. But the wild grains did well in the drier
climate. The Natufians began eating a lot
And here we come to a great riddle. How did modern
wheat replace those wild grains? Isolated mutations
died without human help. Was some human clever
enough to recognize and pick out that lone stalk of
fat wheat in a field of grain?
We used to think so. But maybe the drama played out
in quite a different way. By 8000 B.C. the
Natufians needed much more grain. They probably
began doing some planting to create it. Once they
did, the fat wheat had its chance. It was easier to
harvest. The seeds stayed in place when you cut it.
Every time the Natufians harvested seed,
they got proportionately more of the mutations.
They lost more of the wild grain.
It took only a generation or so of that before a
single mutation took over. The result was an
unexpected wedding. In no time at all, modern wheat
dominated the fields. And that was both a blessing
and a curse.
The Natufians unwittingly replaced the old
wild wheat with far richer food. But it was a food
that could survive only by their continued
intervention. No more lilies of the field. From now
on we would live better, but we would also be
forever bound to this wonderful new food by the new
technology of agriculture.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Stevens, W., Dry Climate May Have Forced Invention of
Agriculture. New York Times, SCIENCE,
Tuesday, April 2, 1991, Section B.
Toward the beginning of this series, I did an
episode on wheat and the invention of farming
(Episode 20). In it I
suggested that recognizing the modern wheat
mutation, and replanting it, was a stroke of
ingenuity. The case presented here stems from
recent work by Frank Hole and Joy McCorriston of
Yale University. If it's correct, then the act of
ingenuity occured when Natufians realized
they could replant wild wheat. They probably didn't
know they were reinforcing a new species.
top: Modern white Gaines wheat.
bottom: A wild wheat-like grass, triticum
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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