Wheat was first identified by humans in the Fertile Crescent and Northern Africa about 12,000 years ago as a grass plant that could be gathered with other seeds and fruits for food. Because wheat is self-pollinating, it was possible for humans to breed and select certain individual plants, and, over time domesticate wheat as an important crop to early human agriculture, starting about 8,000-10,000 years ago.
The great ice age of 15,000 years ago began to recede about 12,000 years ago, and the combination of increasing temperatures and lots of moisture from the melting ice led to the massive spread, as well as speciation, of grasses. What we now think of as wheat was a mutant grass with large seed heads tightly bundled and aligned at the tip of the stalk.
It is speculated that it was probably women who first noticed the potential of this grass for food because in hunter-gatherer tribes the women were responsible for gathering nuts and berries, and weaving baskets. Grasses were used for baskets, and it may be that some of the seeds of early wheat grasses were sampled, or fell off the baskets and were then cooked and ground up to be integrated into the early food web.
Wheat typically has, per cup: 600-700 calories, 26 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, and traces of sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and iron.
Wheat is considered the staff of life because it was a critical source of vegetable protein, and energy, in early human culture. The combination of wheat with animal protein from sheep and goats is credited with not only human survival, but the fact that humans had a source of protein that enabled brain growth.
Some people might suggest that the human brain got too big, and this resulted in humans overestimating their importance on the planet, but there is no doubt that humans have been clever at domesticating and maximizing benefits from nature.
In the last 10,000 years, the human population has doubled ten times, from about 10 million to seven billion, and estimates are that the human population will reach 10 billion in the next 50 years. Wheat has been critically important to the expansion of a reliable human food supply.
There are many ancient stories about wheat. Though it is unclear who actually invented the game of chess, there is a myth that the King of India, Shihram was presented with the game by one of his servants to show the all powerful importance of the king. Shihram was so delighted with the game that he rewarded the servant with a request for anything he wanted. The servant said only that he wanted wheat: on grain on the first square of the chess board, two on the second, four on the fourth, eight on the fifth, and so on until the sixty-fourth square.
The King Shihram laughed at this request and granted it fully in front of a large crowd. But when the minions dispatched to grant the gift proceeded, they found that it took a month to fulfill the gift, and required the entire wheat stock of the nation.
There are many stories in the Bible about the importance of wheat and storing enough to survive droughts, plagues, and wars that could result in a famine.
Today, wheat is the third most produced grain worldwide, behind corn and rice, but wheat is the most traded grain in the world in terms of volume, and more land area is devoted to wheat production than any other crop. There is some speculation that wheat will become a lesser grain in the future because unlike corn and rice, it has been more difficult to modify its genetics.
Wheat has 21 chromosomes containing 16 billion pairs of sequences, which is 40 times that of rice, six times that of corn, and interestingly: wheat is five times more complex, from a genetic standpoint, than a human being. ❖