November 02, 2018

Before wheat was wheat: A brief history of the world’s most widely grown crop


Wheat is one of the most widely consumed grains in the world.1 Constituting the staple diet of millions of people, wheat is not only a source of life-supporting nutrition but also has become a symbol of prosperity and fertility in many cultures as well.

Modern wheat was cultivated from ancient wheat species such as einkorn, emmer, spelt and khorasan wheat more than 10,000 years ago.1 Although ancient grains are commonly misconceived as being healthier than their modern-day successor, they are very similar in terms of composition and in some cases contain less dietary fiber compared to its modern counterpart.2 In fact, the main differences between modern and ancient wheat are modern wheat has larger seeds and more seeds per plant. This high-yielding, cultivable grain is often attributed to why humans started living in larger communities as opposed to the smaller hunter-gatherer nomadic groups.4 Thus, it’s no wonder why wheat was considered to be sacred, popping up in houses of worship and religious texts around the world.


Uruk plate ca. 30,000 BCE shows a priest with wheat in his hand. (Photo: PHGCOM/Wikimedia Commons)

Although wheat was originally domesticated in what is now the Middle East, it quickly spread to the far corners of the world. Unlike rice or maize, wheat is able to be grown in almost every climate and elevation, which is why wheat is grown on more land area worldwide than any other food crop.3 This adaptability is why there are over 25,000 different varieties of wheat today.

The transformation of the wheat of yesteryear to the wheat of today did not happen overnight. It took place over generations and generations of farmers selecting the best grain for their communities in a never-ending drive for improvement. That drive still continues today with wheat farmers around the globe growing the highest-yielding and top-quality grains in history, and wheat breeders working to continually deliver improvements to yield and quality. With this hard work ethic and ingenuity being passed down from farmer to farmer, there’s no telling what wheat will look like thousands of years from now, except that it will continue to be a vital food source.

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  1. Shewry, P. R. “Wheat.” Journal of Experimental Botany 60.6 (2009): 1537-1553.
  2. Shewry, Peter R. “Do ancient types of wheat have health benefits compared with modern bread wheat?” Journal of cereal science vol. 79 (2018): 469-476.
  3. Oder, Tom. “How wheat changed the world.” Mother Nature Network. Feb 17, 2016. <>.