I love the term ‘Landrace’, It is used often when dealing with local varieties that have been grown for a long time in the same locale. I love it because not only it alludes to wheat varieties it also speaks about the people who grow them, who I love to refer to as landrace people.
Here in the UK we tend to call older wheat varieties Heritage wheats, that is because most of the real old ones where lost, some of what is termed heritage wheat is actually post green revolution cereals, and that means in most cases that they have been tempered with by wheat breeders, which to me is only a step away from genetically modifying them. However saying all of that, landraces too are genetic modifications, so to set the record right in regards to heritage wheats and landraces, I would like to tell it as a story.
In the Jordan valley in below the sea of Galilee or to be more correct south of it, the Jordan river meets the Yarmok river, its an ancient cradle of sedentary population, and is also where I was born. It is also the seat of the Yarmukian culture, which took over from the Natufian, who were semi sedentary people. The important thing about the Yarmukian culture is that they mark the move from small semi-nomadic villages to city-states. In other words we can call them the first sedentary landrace.
The largest settlement found that belongs to this culture is close to Shaʽar HaGolan This Kibbutz also is the home for a museum dedicated to the Yarmukian Culture. I was born 10 minutes (drive) south of it, on another Kibbutz, called Gesher, in another site, nestled between fields and fish ponds, a team of French archeologists have found a site they called Munhata, or Tell Minha (the site of the offering) In it they discovered layer upon layer of settlement, going from the Natufian and dated to 11,000 years ago, with a more recent Yarmukian layer. In that later layer which also marked the shift into Neolithic pottery they have found an amazing figurine, which was named the Seated Goddess.
This figurine, I argue, is important because it marks a shift in human life strategy, and this is why – if you note, the eyes of the figurine look like coffee beans?, which is also how the experts referred to them, but in truth they are there to resemble wheat, but not any wheat.
Seeing that the Jordan valley is probably the location of Emmer domestication, which is Hulled wheat, this figurine resembles a moment in time, the shift to sedentary settlements around a new wheat variety. A mutation that must have happened in a field somewhere, and again believed to have taken place in the Jordan valley, the appearance of Naked wheat. Or Durum wheat, something that has happened in fields of Domesticated Emmer.
As you can see the eyes of the goddess do not resemble Emmer because it is a hulled wheat (meaning you can not see the grain itself until it is pearled). The fact that both pottery and sedentary settlements originated around the same area, could also be connected to this mutation.
I would like to take it a step further, and point out that the whole body of the goddess is actually a sheath of wheat, it resembles a short landrace of Durum, maybe the first Durum wheat ever, a mutation in one field in the Jordan valley. This “first Durum” wheat is now believed to be extinct, but similar short Durum landraces still exist in the area, in the Nursi and Jallali populations, which could have been sown for 8500 years in some form or another, or at least I like to believe so because its a romantic idea, and because they actually do look very much like this figurine, with short fat and flat sheaths or ordinary grain.
I call this moment when the Goddess opened her eyes, resulting in the first wheat landrace, which was also the first time a people lived as a race without moving, possibly (if we like to follow a cause and effect approach) because they have now harvested naked wheat for the first time, which was easier to grind, and they did not have to move periodically anymore. The figurine and the believed date of the emergence of Naked wheat, seem to tally. Everything changed around that time.
In the ages before naked wheat, semi sedentary people used to view the world in a very different way, in fact the first pottery art almost always revolved around one central idea, the ritual dance, depicting people dancing in a circle and often portraying them as wheat, as if wheat, dance and the people where one thing. There are beautiful images of women dancing, their heads resemble sheaths of wheat, with wind blowing through it, turning their hair into a circular motif, people saw wheat and the coming together ritual, the same way, the wind that moved the wheat was the dance of the people, so landraces could be applied to them both interchangeably.
Our problem in understanding those motif is because we lost the purpose of ritual dance in society, a ritual that was practiced by all nomadic people, dancing in a circle and performing the same acts, whilst moving in the same direction. The trance that came from this type of dance I believe was geared towards making everyone reach a state of shared awareness. Without going too deep into it, we can say that all nomadic cultures have practiced a community making ritual, that made everyone the same, or in other words, community was something we had to work daily to create even at such early dates, community I like to say was always hard work, but we believed it was so important, that in truth that was the only thing we did, or at least the only thing we drew.
It is notable that with the emergence of sedentary life, ritual dance was dropped and disappeared away from our art all together. So wheat mutations, sedentary life, and landraces are all connected, and the loss of real sense of community is very strange in a people that lived together in one place.
Too take this story forward, is to follow Durum wheat through the ages. At times I like to tell the story of wheat mutations as the story of the Holocene, and say that our whole epoch (since the last ice age) is a story of how we came to cultivate grass because we killed the large herds that used to graze it for us. We replaced the function they did by growing and eating it ourselves. Durum wheat however for some strange reason remained a very small chapter in a much larger story, even if it was the initial chapter so to speak.
The Egyptians are believed to have never adopted Durum wheat, and have stuck to Emmer, that is until the Greeks took over and made them plant it. North of current day Israel in Syria and maybe even Iraq a new type of wheat was already being adopted, bread wheat, which is a much later mutation, or rather a further cross of wheat with a wild grass, this new wheat has become the dominant variety worldwide, because the starch in its gluten supported sourdough better, meaning that the gluten structure allowed us to make fluffier breads, which I argue taste so much lesser than Durum wheat.
Durum wheat must have been taken to Greece and later to Italy, where eventually it turned into the pasta we know, probably because bread wheat was available too, and so Durum wheat bread was dropped altogether, northern Africa has some different strains of Durum wheat, which are believed to have been originated in Ethiopia, where Emmer mutated into naked Durum again, meaning that Durum wheat has two independent points of origin, this resulted in other foods, which still plays a role in northern African cuisine, like couscous as one example.
Durum wheat has halted its spread to the west in Italy, and has become the pasta flour we so love, even if there must have been a world of foods that we have now lost in the process. It was celebrated even in older times as the best quality wheat, tastier, and full of protein, much easier to digest, but is almost unused this day by anyone but Italian pasta makers. This is a situation I work hard to remedy, but more on that another time.
In the UK we call older wheat heritage wheats because we do not really have any wheat variety that is older than 200 years, Heritage to us means we lost the storyline altogether. Italian wheats (which we work and grow) are better referred to as ancient grains, because they are over 3000 year old varieties at times.
Like I said man has always modified his grain, some of it was natural mutation, and a lot of it was also selection by peasant farmers, who worked to better their wheat, choosing the best or largest sheaths to sow again the next year, but they seemed to know things we have forgotten, because with all their work and selection their wheats were almost unchanged for thousands of years. We as modern society, breed a new wheat every 5 minutes, a process started as crosses by wheat breeders, and it continued with genetic modifications, I like to say that it is a moment in time when people have lost their relation to the land, when we have stopped being a landrace. In that moment we took landrace wheat and modified it out of existence. Luckily for us, some old peasants all over the world kept growing their old wheats, and those in some cases are now saved. So wheat is what gave us the possibility to be a land-race to begin with, and losing it has unhinged our sense of belonging.