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One Grain to Rule Them All: How Wheat Gave Birth to Civilization

One Grain to Rule Them All: How Wheat Gave Birth to Civilization

In this post, I'll be answering the question of when (and why) did civilization start?

The answer has to do with bread, the wind, and a lucky break for man. But I'll come back to that.

One popular answer for the start of civilization is the agricultural revolution. But let's be more precise: it's when man went from nomad to village agriculture.

Why did it matter?

Because man gained the possibility to compound his knowledge:

  • A nomad can only carry so much tools (which are "embodied knowledge").
  • A nomad can only survive so many winters without shelter.
  • A nomad can only trade so many times a year.
  • A nomad can only support so many people.

So what made the change to agriculture possible?

Jacob Bronowski gives a wonderful explanation in The Ascent of Man. He says that "man and the plant came together".

The plant he is referring to is wheat.

You see, about 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, a new breed of wheat emerged.

Map of the Fertile Crescent

Wheat used to be a sort of wild grass, impossible to cultivate.

A random genetic mutation made it more fertile and larger. It's called Emmer wheat. Its big advantage was that it could spread with the wind.

Emmer Wheat

That's good but is that it?

No. A second genetic mutation came about as man started to cultivate this Emmer wheat. The mutation created bread wheat.

Bread Wheat

It's larger so it can produce more food. BUT it had one particularity.

This particularity would be a huge disadvantage in nature. Yet it made bread wheat the most successful plant of all time.

It could not spread with the wind.

This created the opportunity for a beautiful symbiosis between wheat and man.

Man spread the seeds and the wheat nourrishes man. Their lives depends on each other.

"It is a true fairy tale of genetics, as if the coming of civilization had been blessed in advance by the spirit of the abbot Gregor Mendel". - Jacob Bronowski

I like to think that dogs were man's first companion. And wheat was the second.

Now you know why civilization started with a random genetic mutation, bread, and wind.

But that was just the start. After that, man had his destiny in his hands.