Barley for Peace

Barley for Peace

The borders of my fatherland,
The wheat, the barley, the vines,
And the trees of the olive and the fig.

— From an Athenian ephebic oath

here is evidence that modern humans (Homo sapiens) wiped out their competitors, the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis), about 30,000 years ago.1 There is also evidence that the gendered division of labor among our early ancestors played a significant role in this “victory.”2 Whereas there is little direct evidence that Neanderthals subsisted on foods other than large game (a high-stakes endeavor), there is significant evidence that Homo sapiens had a much broader range of food dependence, owing to a familial division of labor. While men were still principally hunters, women and children foraged for berries, tubers, insects (nutritious!), etc., and developed other early agricultural skills that provided for diversity and reliability of food supplies.

The advantages of cooperation and complementary subsistence roles made our ancestors better able to remain consistently well fed, thus allowing them to defeat the less adaptable Neanderthals, who suffered frequent disruptions of their increasingly scarce food supply. The battle for supremacy ended about 30,000 years ago, when Neanderthals became extinct.

Then about 15,000 years ago, according to recent DNA analysis, a radical transformation occurred: our ancestors became more sociable and less violent, for reasons that remain unclear.1 This may have allowed them to create settlements, begin farming, and foster civilization. The settlements occurred in Southwest Asia, usually referred to as the Levant, where foragers expanded their resource base to many foods previously ignored, in order to help prevent shortages. The recent discovery of more than 90,000 plant remains, including many wild grasses, from a 21,000-year-old Stone Age site in Israel suggests that the dietary shift to grains occurred much earlier than previously thought.3

As settlements formed and civilization began, societies stabilized and were sustained by the growing dependence on cereal grains, such as barley and wheat. Well suited to the region’s sandy soil, barley, in particular, eventually won out over the wild-harvested small-grained grasses, which ultimately disappeared from the Levantine diet.


  1. Wade N. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. Penguin Press, New York, 2006.
  2. Kuhn SL, Stiner MC. What’s a mother to do? The division of labor among Neanderthals and modern humans in Eurasia. Curr Anthropol 2006 Dec;47:6.
  3. Weiss E, Wetterstrom W, Nadel D, Bar-Yosef O. The broad spectrum revisited: evidence from plant remains. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2004;101(26):9551-5.

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