What type of grass are you on, Jared?

by Edward Pegler on 5 July, 2017

Does agriculture start with lucky grass, as Jared Diamond says, or does lucky grass start with agriculture.

I’ve been sitting enjoying the weather in my garden in Swindon, England. It’s a mess, full of random weeds and overgrown grass. But who cares? The Sun’s out.

And there is a particularly fine, architectural grass growing just next to me here which I couldn’t help pulling a few spikelets off, rubbing them in my hands and seeing, after some careful winnowing, what was left. There, in my palm, were a few tiny brown seeds, about a millimetre long.

From what I can tell, the grass I’ve been handling is Phleum pratense, or ‘purple-stem cat’s tail’. It grows widely in light soils across the Eurasian steppe from here in Britain to there in China, but is of no great interest to anyone and I don’t think it’s ever been cultivated.

But those tiny seeds in my hand made me think of how far the grass-based grain crops of the world, maize, wheat, millet, etc. have come in ten thousand years and the shear hassle they must have been to collect enough sustenance off in their primitive forms.

Undoubtedly, primitive barley was an easier source of protein that primitive maize (teosinte). But was that just the luck of the draw in places where people chose to start agriculture anyway.

Jared Diamond’s argument in ‘Guns, Germs & Steel‘ was simple. That luck was crucial. Farming started where the grass was best, in the Middle East. But tell that to the Mesoamericans who persevered with the unbelievably unpromising teosinte.

So, let’s take a momentary fight of fancy and say that in some parallel universe farming started right here, in what was destined to become Swindon. What grass from the unpromising range of grasses on offer here would those ancient Swindonians have picked. Perhaps purple stem cat’s tail, with its tiny, but protein-rich seeds, would have been one of them. Perhaps millennia later we’d be amazed at the widespread use of Cat’s Tail as one of the major carbohydrate sources of the world’s burgeoning population.

And an alternative Jared would be extolling the good-fortune of the those who lived thousands of years ago in Swindon (not something often said about the place now), as they harvested local wild grasses.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Jaap August 6, 2017 at 8:16 pm

Been reading some (the previous post + comments), and been thinking some (my own experience of the ‘other world’), and decided not to bring this latter into this discussion. The ‘religious’ sphere is where one can only tread very gingerly. You, Ned, absolutely refuse to bring it up, except well-disguised in academic language. You wanna talk brass tacks, and please no hanky panky. But you cannot deny the sphere, nor the impact that it has had, and – perhaps regrettably – still has.

The ‘brass’ point is this: does the level of organisation demonstrated at GT imply stratification of the community that produced it? And this question gives rise to quite a number of observations.
1. The culture involved a large population.
2. The culture was central in the early development of wheat production.
3. The culture was somehow involved in an ancestral cult (renewal of the circle every few decennia).
4. The culture was remembered (in some form) in far away Sumeria 6000 years later. This is rather a scratchable candidate, of little consequence for the brass.
5. The culture was given a proper burial, performed by deeply respectful progeny, round about 8000 BCE (cf 4).

Given that three cultures in the Triangle developed the Neolithic, apparently quite apart from one another (please don’t ask me where I got that from!), we’ve now got one instance of the one that introduced barley that has left a legacy of their cult: depictions of not-eaten animals somehow connected to their forebears.

And here I could rest and lean back in my armchair. This does! Enough! But being the idiot that I am I want to to pursue this a bit further. Stratigraphy! Who were these people taking orders from? Was their a whip-hand here, or did they volunteer? I’m inclined to the latter (cf 4 and 5).

And now we come to the ‘tacky’ bit. It seems to me that here we have traces of a cult that wasn’t yet a cult in the sense that people were forced to believe things outside their experience. Simply a cult that took their cues from shamanitic fellowmen without all the stratigraphic implications. Emphasis on ‘all’. Somehow this was not too far from their minds, this was something they grew up with.

Must have been to do with forebears, the stars, as well as ‘the stories’. No child can resist a good story, and they were children just as we are! That’s why we’re all reading Armchair History!


Edward Pegler August 7, 2017 at 8:33 am

I’m just off up north for three days but will reply to this as soon as I get back, as I love your questions and thoughts. I never really expected such a comment stream from such an ill-thought out post. best wishes Ned


Edward Pegler August 11, 2017 at 4:45 pm

Back now and don’t know where to start with reply.

No, I don’t seem to do religion much. How do I view religion? Possibly as a natural way of getting people to share habits which make them feel connected to each other and also which act as a surrogate ‘law’ in the absence of an all-seeing eye.

I occasionally go to a local philosophical society. Many of the members of this society are trying to understand the difference between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. I struggle even to understand why they’re asking the question. I was brought up by my parents to behave in a particular way and also learned (and inherited) my own ways of interacting with people during my 50 years. It helps me not to get lynched or not put in prison, and also makes me feel happier when I follow its logic, but I don’t believe that it’s inherently good. I am not religious but I behave as if I were. I think that most of us do.

Did GT have organised religion? In some way probably, although it may not have had leaders like bishops. What they chose to believe is quite beyond me, although the region in which GT resides quite possibly conducted human sacrifice on rare occasions (e.g. at Cayonu ‘terrazzo building’ – see Kornienko 2015). They appear to have conducted very particular defleshing rituals on some dead people, perhaps inherited from people in the Levant. Whatever the religion was it seems to have been quite widespread, perhaps spreading across the whole of the PPN farming area. Why they did what they did beats me. I doubt that I will ever know. It may well, as you suggest, have involved star-gazing. Some polytheistic religions seem to. However, I think that this is easy to overplay. The Sun often turns out to be enough.

I also think that people share stories and motifs as things that make them feel unified. These things don’t have to be religious. I used to draw ‘Ultravox’ motifs on pieces of paper when I was young because it allowed me to imagine I was connected to the band along with others who I didn’t even know. Stars are full of constellations that allow people to tell stories but the stories they tell depend on the constellations that they choose to recognise.

As for the five points that you make all (except maybe 4?) seem sensible to me. Your point about the skills of the GT artists is interesting. To me the images seem quite childish (there are some very cute dog images at Hallan Cemi) and quite a lot less impressive than the artistry of the Palaeolithic. Sometimes these things must be dependent on the skills of people working in particular media (relatively soft limestone? in the case of GT) and also just how good the artists were. What makes them amazing is that there are so many of them. These were people who got totally in to carving.

As for the cultures of what you call the ‘triangle’ a quick look at the recent work of Lazaridis et al 2017 would be worth your while. They highlight particular genetic strands contributing to first farmers of the middle east, including the southern Levant and Zagros Mountains of Iran, as well as, probably, a Balkan/Anatolian strand, all of which contributed to the mix of populations in the PPN. These genetic strands may relate to groups of people inhabiting particular ‘refugia’ during the last glaciation.

How quickly these populations mixed with each other during the PPN is a debatable point (perhaps not much, although they are now quite mixed). How much they shared crops and animals seems quite an interesting question (I must look). I guess that the mix would be more. How much they shared religious ideas seems to me to be perhaps more still. Quite a few of these questions will be answered in the next few years.


Jaap August 12, 2017 at 11:53 pm

Yes Ned, I’m getting old and sinister things seem to be going on in my mind: word-finding especially seems to be hampered: I want to say ‘crescent’, and out comes ‘triangle’; I can’t remember the name of the Chauvet caves, and I mix up wheat and barley … It’s embarrassing to look back on it, but I can’t help it, because I must go with the flow that there is, without regrets about what there isn’t.
I’m interested in what you say about religion. I was brought up by my mother, as my father was always working 24/7. He was a minister, which meant low pay and maximal availability for hordes of people, plus the demanding routines of visitations, burials, weddings, chatechisms, and what have you. To make ends meet he also taught philosopy at the local Pedagogical Academy. In the weekends he would be preparing his sermon Saturday nights into the early morning with a brimming ashtray, to stick his hread into a sink filled with cold water at 8.30 the following morning to make the service at 10. Having a mind as muddled as mine he badly needed management, and that’s where my mother shone. She would deal artfully with the complications of his forgetfulness, plus all the puberty-problems of my siblings and their numerous friends (there were three very polular sisters!), and I, the youngest late-comer (not wanted, but still loved) would be watching everything. Our house was always full: youngsters, cigarette-smoke, visitors of all kind, never-ending cardplay, political discussions … I’m talking 1950s, early 1960s. Just imagine: my sisters would be making love in their rooms to the music of George Brassens or Amelia Rodriguez, while their admirers were downstairs playing cards, knowing their way to the tea and the coffee. This is where I came in handy. Mother at her writing cabinet, father is his study, occasionally drawn to come down to comment on the card-play … He was a player of cards, chess, tennis. And a very strong one too.
This father of mine was not religious, much rather anti-religious. Claimed the Jewish religion was an anti-religion: god is Jaweh, meaning nothing more (or less!) than ‘I am’. Why this long digression about my up-bringing? Trying to wash my hands of religion? Nah! There are things holy, not to be toyed with, filling us with awe. Bach and Jesus? Mwah, looks like it, yeah. I need to tread softly here, as so much villainy has been perpetrated in the name of religion. My father always strove to explain to his community that ‘belief’ cannot go unfounded in experience. Which explains that he was often deemed too intellectual – not enough down-to-earth (for Chrissake!) – to really satisfy the needs of his community, who felt they needed more fire and brimstone to go home cleansed after his sermons. Because they were so guilty of every crime in the book! And instead of cleansing he offered them thought!
Ned, I don’t know why I felt I needed to give you this, but I did and I did …


Edward Pegler August 15, 2017 at 6:20 pm

Dear Jaap

Been fixing the computer. Only just managed to get back in.

I’m very happy for you to give me this. You write beautifully and descriptively, giving me a cluttered portrait of what sounds like a good childhood.

I feel strange about religion myself. I lost mine somewhere in my early teens. My partner describes me as the least spiritual person she knows. But I still think that we all need to come to terms with life or, more importantly, death and its side-effects, either of us or of people that we’ve loved.

I guess religion has been used as a reason for many things in the past, but so has economics. I have good friends who still feel the call of a god. Mostly I don’t need one, but sometimes I think I might be missing something. I still think that the community is the thing that holds us together. Religion is really good for that, because the communities it makes are strong and often with rules to make people feel safe. For some people those rules can be a form of hell and other communities are better for them. I just wish that being part of something didn’t make other people potential enemies.

Anyway, blah blah.


Jaap August 17, 2017 at 6:26 am

Thanks for your appreciation, Ned. Just some more blah-di-blah from me to complement your blah blah: here in Austria (where I live) they say that life is like a chicken run, short and shitty (‘ Hühneleiter, kurz und beschissen’). I’m definitely one of the uncircumcised, and tend to look down on senseless morals as something basically immoral. I have only what I can see and feel. And this goes deep and does not agree with much of modern consensus. Even the scientific consensus often seems narrowminded, and I’m not thinking of all the raggedy-yeah going on in this field. Our cause-and -effect way of making sense of things is taking us places, surely, giving us many ‘benefits’ including a sense of mastery over the physical world, and a piggledy sense of awe that never really leaves our studies. Indirect. Dishonest. Unfeeling. The holy, cerebral side of life seems to have been lobbed off in many modern people. This need is ‘almost physical’, I feel, and its negation a constant pain. Hence this social fabric of religion, where meaningless ritual and moral precepts mask our insensibility and our severance from the ‘real world’, from ourselves.

The blades of our ancestors likewise cut deep into the very fabric of life. This probably gave rise to a need of spiritual cleansing. The people of GT lived in times that the systematic violence of the third millenium was still far off, but was their life gory! They will hardly have been strangers to cruelty of all kinds … But they created great beauty – even if much of their design was not impressive, they knew how to finish limestone slabs – and their cult was alive; when it had died they gave it a very decent burial. So unlike our sterile religion that cannot die, and therefore cannot be alive.

Don’t get me wrong, I too view the world as a chain of causes and effects, how could I do otherwise? And I like thinking; I especially adore ‘common sense’. But I also feel the rift within, and the ache of that. And there have been moments – few and far between – that this world stopped …

DD'eDeN July 19, 2017 at 4:24 pm

“But those tiny seeds in my hand made me think of how far the grass-based grain crops of the world, maize, wheat, millet, etc. have come in ten thousand years and the shear hassle they must have been to collect enough sustenance off in their primitive forms.”

My guess is that nobody collected them en masse originally, and that this idea is a wrong turn, arrived at because of the lack of physical evidence.
Rather, cooked by either wildfires or deliberately set game-hunt burns (later evolving into swidden agriculture’s slash & burn method) produced cooked grain-heads (Shiboleth in Hebrew, I think) toasted, tasty and perfect accessories to cooked game. In Anatolia etc. historically, people often did not collect & thresh & mill individual grains, but instead plucked the grain-heads and burned the chaff which cooked the grains sufficiently to eat, leaving no milling evidence. I guess most grains could have been processed this way, again leaving no substantial evidence.
What do you think?


Edward Pegler July 19, 2017 at 5:15 pm

Well, it has the basics of a very pleasing idea. Have you discussed it with anyone else? I would.

I suspect that the ‘slash and burn’ argument is a red herring. This is a method of agriculture primarily used in tropical locations where nutrients are depleted in the soil and the burnt material is used to enrich the ground before planting (if I remember correctly). It was once thought to be used by LBK farmers in west central Europe but this idea is now thought to be unlikely and I don’t know of any other evidence for this kind of farming in Europe or the Near East.

I think the most interesting part of what you say is that you could simply gather grain and stalks and, by charring, extract the worthwhile bit. As people were not (I think) initially trying to make fodder for animals the stalks would be worthless. Maybe there’s evidence out there to help confirm or deny an interesting speculation. Thank you.



Robert Kerr July 20, 2017 at 2:44 pm

‘Slash and Burn’ was in fact practised in northern Europe in pre-historic and historic times: it was recorded among German tribes by the Romans and it actually persisted until the 19th century among the ‘Forest Finns’. These people exploited the coniferous forest lands of Finland and later of Sweden and Norway, to grow rye by this method.


Edward Pegler July 20, 2017 at 4:29 pm

Apologies for not checking my facts (which is nothing new in my comments).

You seem to have given much thought to farming practices. Is this an interest?


Robert Kerr July 20, 2017 at 5:03 pm

It is an interest, Ned, though not more than other neolithic activities. I got the info courtesy of Wikipedia, by the way, though I’d heard of Finns farming this way some years ago.

DD'eDeN July 26, 2017 at 11:36 pm

I just saw this interesting article: https://phys.org/news/2017-07-archaeology-millet-birdseed.html
I like the last bit, call it weed or seed, it feeds us!


Edward Pegler July 27, 2017 at 1:58 pm

Thanks, Daud. That’s a super article. I wrote about millet a couple of years ago in a post on China, but I think I need to check that it’s still up to date.


Robert Kerr July 19, 2017 at 10:59 pm

The problem would be that the heads of wild, undomesticated grasses were very small, so harvesting and eating individual grains, using whatever cooking method, would produce next to no food. Of course, they may have collected the grain with a view to making a porridge or, more interestingly, to brew with. Grain that has been fermented is more nutritious too.


Edward Pegler July 20, 2017 at 4:32 pm

Entirely agreed. The only thing I don’t like about the ‘beer as cause of farming theory is that settlement leads to farming, not the other way round, which makes me suspect that a shortage of food was the issue.


Robert Kerr July 20, 2017 at 5:20 pm

But there’s clear evidence that the Natufian hunter-gatherer had settlements in the Levant in the late Quarternary.


Edward Pegler July 27, 2017 at 1:54 pm

You’re right, Robert. Natufian settlement predates farming (sensu stricto) by some three or four thousand years (bearing in mind that these settlements were abandoned during the Younger Dryas period, before resettlement occurred in the PPNA). The reasons for settlement are unknown, but they have nothing to do with farming.

I can’t remember what I was thinking when I wrote the last comment that you’re replying to, but I think what I meant was that burgeoning population, for some reason reflected in settlement, probably led to farming. That population increase led to a food shortage as wild animals, nuts, etc were in short supply, and that farming became a necessity.

The ‘beer causes farming’ thing suggests that people took up farming for pleasure. I have no problem with the idea that people fermented food to get the most out of it, but getting mildly drunk wasn’t going to solve the food problem. Does that make sense? I’m not sure any more.

DD'eDeN July 27, 2017 at 12:23 am

I just reread Ned’s post, saw this: “..pulling a few spikelets off, rubbing them in my hands and seeing, after some careful winnowing, what was left. There, in my palm, were a few tiny brown seeds, about a millimetre long.” An odd idea popped up… 1. Aztec warriors & messengers carried pouches of tiny chia seeds, a super food. 2. Pockets might be rmore ancient than I’d thought. 3. Nomadic pastoral (and other) women spun yarns-threads-twine from fiber tufts while herding enroute through vast steppes by rubbing it up & down the outer hip. Could small grains have been winnowed similarly in the other hand, the tiny seeds simply detaching and falling down into an open pouch or pocket, the tough stem transferred to the to the spinning thread adding strength? 4. In Malay, pocket is kantong and a hamlet is kampong, in Greek, a cane basket/bundle is canastros (canister), in Iroquois a canata/canada is a bunch/bundle of people(hamlet), maybe linked?


Edward Pegler July 27, 2017 at 2:10 pm

A really interesting idea about using fabric (or other material?) to winnow seeds. Don’t know about the linguistic connections, though. They’d need to be at least 15,000 years old, and languages have probably changed too much, both in phonetics and in word use, during that time, to expect such similarity of forms (think German ‘fuss’ and English ‘foot’ after just 2000 years).


Robert Kerr July 5, 2017 at 8:50 pm

But would they even have attempted to make flour? A porridge or broth, with other ingredients, would be more likely and they would have discovered, accidentally no doubt, that the fermentation process would create a nourishing and alcoholic brew. That would make it a lot more interesting! After all, who’d opt for grass seeds over fresh meat except when hunting was bad?


Edward Pegler July 6, 2017 at 10:28 am

Thanks for the comment. Always delightfully surprised to find that anybody’s reading this stuff.

Try reading Andrew Sherratt on drinking and grain. He suggests that boozing is a bit of a later phenomenon, associated with beakers and corded jars, but perhaps at a push with the first pottery. Early farming has an intriguing lack of pottery use, but there could have been wooden cups, of course.

My point is also, as you rightly say, that hunting must have been bad. Eating grains, and the subsequent agriculture, is a sign of desperation due to too many people and not enough easy food.


Robert Kerr July 6, 2017 at 3:47 pm

I was thinking of the stone ‘vats’ at Gubekli Tepe, with their residues of what could be alcohol. I wasn’t aware pottery use in the early neolithic was less common than supposed. Fermenting grain would have been hard – lugging stone vats around would not have been an option.


Edward Pegler July 9, 2017 at 5:51 pm

Well I didn’t know about the residues in the basins (see here for link to ‘The role of cult and feasting in the emergence of Neolithic communities. New evidence from Göbekli Tepe, south-eastern Turkey’).

As it turns out, the tests were inconclusive, although tests at Kortik Tepe seem to be positive.

What the evidence so far suggests is fermentation. However, can the tests distinguish alcohol from fermented gruel?

Yes, the residues could be for alcoholic drinks, but dietary experts are well aware that grain is pretty indigesible straight from the husk and needs to be fermented to remove the ?phytic acid and guarantee the most nutritional value. The same process is used in sourdough bread making. Spitting into the mix was sometimes a technique for getting the process started. Furthermore, mild fermentation in drink was also a way of making it safe for consumption.

If I had to guess I’d hazard that people have known about fermentation, and possibly even the side effects of alcohol, for longer than the period of farming. I’d love someone to find alcohol residues in much older stuff.

(This logic applies equally to finding dairy residues in pots. Fermenting dairy into yoghurt or kefir or whatever means that no lactose tolerance is needed by early, dairy using peoples, as the lactose is broken down in the fermentation)

Additionally, as you say, lugging stone jars is hard but lugging wood or animal skin pouches is less so, so I’m not sure that the lack of pottery matters really.


Jaap August 4, 2017 at 12:01 am

My guess is hunter-gatherers would have learnt about fermentation processes from the word go, as one of the issues must have been storeablity. I imagine fruits and berries were gathered and dried, if possible. If this goes wrong you have alcohol which, when ingested, produces altered states of consciousness, or if you like ‘states of disabilty’ that are interesting to inquisitive minds.
Hunter gatherers also farm, in that they help nature a bit along the ranges in their itinerary. One instance that comes to mind is the fig, which is not a natural product, and seems to have been around for over 30000 years (originating in Syria, I think: don’t quite remember, not in the mood to check my memory). Another is that American archeologists seem to be looking for certain combinations of once-popular herbs to guide them to sites (also from unchecked memory).
Another thing that caught my attention is Ned’s point that pop-surplus naturally leads to forms of farming. That’s a reversal of the old model that farming gave rise to more people. My first encounter with this idea was a couple of years ago when the excavator of Gobekli Tepe, who died recently, explained that this was the other way round. But now I also see why! You just sort of visualise what must have been going on, and then it’s so obvious! Bit surprising actually, especially as in his previous post Ned hadn’t yet realised it.
To me this is an intriguing illustration of how our views are in flux, and how silly we often look in our own view afterwards. Maybe within a few years someone comes up with a train of thought that points out how stupid we are at present …


Robert Kerr August 4, 2017 at 9:22 am

I suspect it could have worked either way, even though ‘pop-growth first’ seems more likely, though Gobekli Tepe’s population growth would have been seasonal and feast related.


Edward Pegler August 4, 2017 at 12:11 pm

Nice comment.

I’ve been toying with the idea of ‘population rise first’ for a long time (for example ‘What Happened in the Natufian‘, which I wrote in 2010). However, I’ve never really got to grips with Gobekli Tepe. To me it’s slightly in the wrong place (the action is in the Euphrates Valley to the north at Cayonu and Nevali Cori). This suggests (to state the obvious) a purely spiritual as opposed to practical aspect to GT.

There are a long line of such places through history, located near to natural routes through the landscape but not on them (e.g. Jerusalem, Mecca, Stonehenge, Persepolis). To sound a bit like an archaeologist, they seem to have a symbolic purpose related to people’s origins. To put that another way, if you come from the mountains but have now acquired wealth on the plain, you put up monuments back in the mountains to symbolise that that’s your true home, even though you don’t really live there. Did that make any sense? Who knows.


Jaap August 5, 2017 at 2:03 am

@Rob. It seems GT had no population. Maybe at some point in time they will locate where the revellers were housed for the duration of the rituals, like in Stonehenge …
@Ned. Thanks. Off topic, isn’t GT fascinating? Could it have been aplace where people dealt with fertility, birth and death? The work of a Munich researcher, whose name (of course) eludes me at the moment, which highlights the possibilty of attention on Taurus as a place in the firmament that signifies the universal birth-canal, as well as a returning point after death, I found interesting and plausable. What if this idea was wide-spread in the paleolithic? For example the bull and the five points at Lascaux? Are the hand-stencils in Lascaux of young girls/children asking to be fruitful later in life? It’s both fascinating and endowed with a high dead-end potential.
As an artist I must prefer the older cave-paintings of Altamira and the other French cave, with their immediacy of the presence of lion, hyena and rhino, that the Magdalenian bull cannot equal. Shamanic accuracy optima forma, what with the lions scanning the herds for a likely meal, on the verge of knowing who it’s gonna be all of them together at the same moment …
The bull seems to be galloping not unlike a horse. A nice picture, but rather emblematic. Not really ‘lived’ like the lions, but more stylised for ritual purposes (?). It’s an oddly clippety-clop sort of bull, that one cannot be transported along with, all running to the beat of a drum right among the herd … So to me there’s a huge difference between the Magdalenian and the Solutrean, or rather between some Magdalenian and some Solutrean (as I’m just blabbing about some images, without really knowing the works!
As to GT, there were obviously a lot of quite skillful hands available …


Harriet July 5, 2017 at 7:17 pm

The name — prairie — is the giveaway. I recommend the section on the domestication of grass in The Megalithic Empire (pp. 220-223)


Edward Pegler July 6, 2017 at 10:30 am

I’ll have a look.

Is the MJ Harper of your book the same one who wrote the book about the English language? I enjoyed that.


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