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.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

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.

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.


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.


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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