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 more grain.
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 work.
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 monococcum.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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