Ancient grains are a grouping of grains and pseudocereals that are considered to have been minimally changed by selective breeding over recent millennia, as opposed to more widespread cereals such as corn, rice and modern varieties of wheat, which are the product of thousands of years of selective breeding. Ancient grains are often marketed as being more nutritious than modern grains, though their health benefits have been disputed by some nutritionists.
Ancient grains include varieties of wheat: spelt, Khorasan wheat (Kamut), freekeh, bulgur, farro, einkorn, and emmer; the grains millet, barley, teff, oats, and sorghum; and the pseudocereals quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and chia. Modern wheat is a hybrid descendant of three wheat species considered to be ancient grains: spelt, einkorn, and emmer.
The origin of grains goes back to the Neolithic Revolution about 10,000 years ago, when prehistoric communities started to make the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer. Modern varieties of grains have been developed over time through mutation, selective cropping, breeding and research in biotechnology. Ancient grains, however, are said to be largely unchanged from their initial domesticated varieties.
Various forms of archaeobotanical evidence, such as carbonized and semicarbonizeed grains, coprolites and imprints of grains, husks or spikelets on potsherds, have been found during excavations of Neolithic sites.
Ancient grains played a role in the spiritual life of several ancient civilizations, from the Aztecs to the Greeks and Egyptians. Quinoa was called the "mother of all grains" and considered sacred by the Inca people. Amaranth was likewise considered sacred by the Aztecs, and was used as part of a religious ceremony, its cultivation being banned by Spanish colonial authorities. Farro grains are mentioned in the Old Testament.
The first reference to ancient grains as a health food was in Daily News (New York) in 1996. Since then the popularity of ancient grains as a food has increased, and in 2011 the gluten-free food market was valued at $1.6 bn.
Archaeobotanical studies indicate three species of wheat existed in the distant past. These are Triticum sphaeococcum Pers, Triticum vulgare Vill and Triticum compactum. The first two hexaploid species are still cultivated in modern times, mostly in Northern India.
The diploid species einhorn and tetraploid species emmer are early wheat species. Evidence for them dates to the Bus Mordeh phase (7500 BC to 6500 BC) recovered from excavation at Ali Kosh in Iran and somewhat later evidence from Nea Nikomedeia. Triticum durum Desf may once have been cultivated in Ancient Egypt.
- Triticum sphaerococcum Pers. - also called "Indian Short Wheat", this is the earliest known cultivated wheat from India with evidence from the Chalcolithic site Harappa and the later site Ter
- Triticum sulgare Vill. - also called "Bread wheat" evidence has been found at Chanhudaro, Mohenjodaro and Navdatolo
- Triticum compactum - found at Harappa, Mundigak and Mohenjodaro
- Triticum Sp. - found at Navdaroli, Inamgaon, Atranjikhera and Kayatha
- Triticum Sp. Contd. - found at Songaon, Rohtak, Nevasa and Bhokardan
Along with wheat, barley (hordeum) is one of the earliest cultivated crops. It was commonly cultivated throughout the Near East and Southern Europe in its hulled form, and the domesticated two row species may have originated at Beidha, Jarmo, or Ali Kosh. Hordeum spontanneum Koch was found at Çatal Hüyük (5850 BCE - 5600 BCE) and Hordeum distichum Linn at Ali Kosh (6750 BCE - 6000 BCE). In India it was mostly cultivated in the north and central regions, extending only as far south as Inamgaon and Nevasa.
Rice is believed to have been cultivated at Non Nok Tha in Thailand since 3500 BC where impressions of grains of rice have been found on potsherds. Other cultivation sites include the Neolithic sites of Yang-Shao Ts'uan, Liu Tzuchen, Anhui, Kionsi, Chekiang and Hupei.
The origin of finger millet (also called ragi) is debated with various proposals placing it at Abyssinia, Africa or India. Charred grains of cultivated and wild ragi have been found at the Neolithic site Hallur in southern India. Wild ragi (eleusine indica Gaertn) is known only from Songaon and Bhokardan, while the cultivated form appears at Paiyampalli in Tamilnadu, Songaon and later at Bhokardan and Nevasa in Maharashtra.
Cultivation of pearl millet is known from sites with semi-arid climate, occurring at Hallur, Rangpur and Nevasa. Cultivation of pearl millet in modern India (where it is also called bajra) is mostly limited to the country's semi-arid regions. In Africa evidence has been found dating to the Naghez phase, but it is not known whether these were cultivated. Both wild and cultivated grain impressions were found at Le Baidla I.
Charred grains of paspalum scrobiculatum (Kodo millet), dating to the Satavahana period, have been found at Nevasa. Sorghum vulgare is known from semi-arid parts of Rajasthan and Maharashtra like Inamgaon, Paunar and Ahar.
Proponents of ancient grains say that they are rich in protein, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Some nutritionists state that they are not inherently more healthy than modern grains, and that ancient and modern grains have similar health benefits when eaten as whole grains. This has led to criticism of the grouping as unscientific and driven by marketing.
Some, but not all, ancient grains are gluten-free. Amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, and teff are gluten-free, but oats and the ancient kinds of wheat (including spelt, einkorn, and Khorasan wheat) are not.
Khorasan wheat (Kamut)
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