The Origins of Agriculture

Lastly let us turn to the testimony of tradition. About fifty years before the beginning of the Christian era Diodorus Siculus was writing his history, in which he gave the story of Osiris and Isis, who were associated in Egypt with the cultivation of corn. In this account he states that Isis discovered wheat, or to be more exact Emmer, and barley growing promiscuously about the country along with other plants and unknown to mankind. In another passage he states that the country in which these plants were found by the goddess was Nysa, which he describes as a high mountain of Phoeicia, far away. It is significant that Mount Hermon, on the slopes of which in 1908 Aaronsohn first found Emmer growing wild, lies about thirty miles inland from the sites of the Phoenician settlements of Tyre and Sidon.

Time will, perhaps, show us which, if any, of these three suggestions is the true solution of our problem; either the first or the last seems the most probable. In any case the balance of evidence seems in favour of the view that wheat was first cultivated at some spot in South-West Asia, in all probability within a few hundred miles of Aleppo. Whether one of the three grains was first cultivated, after which the knowledge spread to the regions in which the others grew wild, or whether, on the other hand, two or three different centres experimented independently with different kinds of wheat we cannot be sure. Since Wild Barley is found more commonly in Asia than in Africa, it is natural to expect that it was first cultivated in the same region in which wheat also was first grown, but, until it can be shown that the predynastic graves in which barley has been found near Silsileh and at Nega-ed-Dêr are later than sequence date 40, we cannot be sure that the dwellers by the banks of the Nile had not made independent experiements in the cultivation of that grain.

Euphrates, having nearly killed out the game on which they had formally subsisted, searching for nuts, berries, and roots, like the Epipalaeolithic inhabitants of Europe, and, being unable, like their western contemporaries, to live on clams and limpets, with an occasional oyster feast. Hungry and despondent they were at times driven, like the inhabitants of Queensland or Kordofan, to collect the seeds of wild grasses, until there arose a woman, who was to be their saviour and to lay the founations of civilization.

It was, we may well believe, about 5000 BC, or conceivably some centuries earlier, on the slopes of Mount Nysa, in Phoenicia, far away, that this woman collected the seeds of barley and of Emmer, which there grew wild, and scattered them upon a bare surface of the mountain side, where they were watered by the dew of Hermon that descended upon the mountains of Zion, so that the seed that she had cast upon the hillside she found increased a hundredfold after many days. This woman, one likes to think, was immortalized by the Egyptians as Isis, and as Cybele, Agdistis, and Dindymene by the peoples of Asia Minor, later by the Greeks as Demeter and by the Romans as Ceres. Her memory has been preserved almost to our own time by our country folk as the Corn Goddess, whose effigy was carried to the barn in the last harvest waggon.

From The Origins of Agriculture by Harold Peake 1928