Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern

How and when wheat and other grains became domesticated has long been a mystery.

Jillian Kramer
July 28, 2017

It's not exactly difficult to get grains these days. You can add them to your cart at the grocery store and have oats, cereal, or rice in your house in just a matter of minutes. It wasn't always that easy; the domestication of wheat-bearing plants was a huge and somewhat mysterious step for the human race. And thanks to a discovery by a team of archeologists, we're starting to understand just when and where the exploitation (which is to say, human cultivation and use) of some grains occurred.

Archeologists from the University of York set out to the Swiss Alps on a dig, where they discovered a Bronze Age wooden container lodged in an ice patch some 8,600 feet up a mountain. Thinking the container was for some kind of porridge, the team was surprised to find lipid-based biomarkers for whole wheat or rye grain—called alkylresorcinols—in place of the milk residue they had expected to find. But that residue, they say, could help other archeologists trace the development of early grain farming in Eurasia.

Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern

Here's why this discovery is such a big deal: plants are all-but-impossible to find in archeological deposits because they degrade so quickly. A deposit like this one, the archeologists say, is really the first of its kind to be found and recorded.

"This is an extraordinary discovery, if you consider that of all domesticated plants, wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world," University of York archeologist André Colonese said in a statement, "and the most important food grain source for humans, lying at the core of many contemporary culinary traditions." Next, Colonese said, the team will search for lipid-based grain biomarkers in ceramic artifacts.

In the meantime, here's what the discovery already tells the team: "Strong evidence that cereals were being transported across this [Swiss] alpine pass," Jessica Hendy, from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, said in a statement.

Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern

As they make additional, similar discoveries, the archeologists should also be able to glean "when and where this food crop spread through Europe," Hendy said.