Wednesday, 4 February 2015

first farmers, first maltsters?

Could the first farmers in the fertile crescent have been the first people to make malt? Who were the first maltsters? After I had completed my M. Phil in 1999, I used to go round archaeology conferences and meetings (as an independent researcher, not affiliated to any University or College) and I gave papers and presentations that aimed to promote some discussion of these questions among archaeologists and anthropologists.

This is the first of a number of blogs based on these talks, presentations and papers from between 2000 and 2010.

I'm presenting here a few thoughts based upon a simple question - what were those first farmers doing with grain that they were so keen to grow? Of course, grain can be ground into flour to make bread, or perhaps, in the neolithic, some kind of gruel or porridge was made. But there is something else that can be done with grain, which not everyone is familiar with. It can also be malted.

quern, suitable for crushing grain and malt here
Malting is the process of deliberate and careful partial germination transforms the properties of the grain. Within the grain, at the beginning of germination, enzymes are activated that can convert starches into sugars. Malted grain is friable, easier to crush and is very different to unmalted grain.

It seems probable that grain, because of its' special qualities when malted, was a status crop rather than a staple crop in the neolithic.  

Every all-grain beer brewer knows the importance of malt. It's the fundamental ingredient. When malt is crushed a little, mixed with water and heated in a mash tun to the correct temperature, it becomes sweet. The brewer then separates the liquid from the grain by lautering and sparging, and collects the liquid run off which is known today as wort. This is boiled with herbs or hops, then fermented into ale or beer.

the first farmers
The transition from fishing, hunting and gathering to a settled life of farming began around ten to twelve thousand years ago in the Near East and Levant. Wild grain grew abundantly, in natural fields, in the area now known as the Fertile Crescent (Harlan, 1967). Grain, lentils and chickpeas were gathered and processed by the nomadic population. As time went on, people began to plant and cultivate these crops deliberately. They processed them in different ways. Villages became established, such as Beidha, and plant domestication began as well as the domestication of goats. Hunter-gatherers became farmers. This was the neolithic revolution, or so it was named by Vere Gordon Childe in the 1930s.

The Spread of Agriculture in the Middle East
fertile crescent, image copyright:Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

The new lifestyle spread rapidly across Europe, reaching the British Isles around five or six thousand years ago. This ‘wave of agriculture’ and the debate surrounding it have been discussed at great length in the literature (eg Maisels 1993, Harris 1996, Smith 1998, Zohary & Hopf 2001, Bellwood 2005). A great deal has been written and it is a complex issue. In 1952 Gordon Childe proposed that climate change was a major factor. Other explanations for the origins of agriculture include population pressure (Binford 1968, Flannery 1973), changes in socio-economic complexity, inequalities and drought. Theories abound, too many to discuss here. In 1990 Brian Hayden noted that

“few topics have engendered as much discussion and resulted in so few satisfying answers as the attempt to explain why hunter-gatherers began to cultivate plants and raise animals.” (Hayden 1990, 31) 

Archaeobotanical analysis of pollen, seeds, flora and fauna within the archaeological record seems to reveal that, ten to twelve thousand years ago, there were oak woods, pistachio trees and there was an abundance of wild life and game (Maisels 1993). Streams and rivers would have provided good fishing. It seems unlikely that the Natufian cultures of the epi-palaeolithic gathered wild grains to tide them over food shortages. They collected and processed them, and later domesticated them, because they wanted to make something. But what did they want to make?

the bread or beer debate
In 1953, Robert Braidwood from Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago initiated the ‘bread or beer’ debate, by organising a symposium "Did man once live by beer alone?". He was curious about the reason for the neolithic revolution, having been excavating at Jarmo, an early Neolithic village in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains of Iran, since the 1940s. He had organised a specialised multi disciplinary team with natural scientists, archaeobotanists, anthropologists and archaeologists (Braidwood et al, 1983). The excavation report Prehistoric Archaeology along the Zagros Flanks is a classic, if you like to read excavation reports, that is.

The symposium was published in the Journal of American Anthropology, number 55, in 1953 and it is now available to read online if you follow the next link. The specific question proposed by Professor Jonathan Sauer in Braidwood's Symposium was this:

… could the discovery that a mash of fermented grain yielded a palatable and nutritious beverage have acted as a greater stimulant toward the experimental selection and breeding of the cereals than the discovery of flour and bread making? One would assume that the utilisation of wild cereals (along with edible roots and berries) as a source of collected food would have been in existence for millennia before their domestication took place. Was the subsequent impetus to this domestication bread or beer?” (Braidwood 1953, 515)

Hans Helbaek considered that malting could perhaps have been the key to understanding early agriculture, even though he was aware that it was "a sore point in archaeological interpretation." It seems that it still is today. He discusses several aspects of malting on pages 517 & 518, for example, that a large vat may have been useful for part of the process. Germination may have been deliberate or accidental, he says, and context would be vital if germinated grain was to be found. Later on, he points out that germinated grain would have not survived in the ground. Carbonised grain might perhaps indicate a failed malting. It is clear from his argument that in the 1950s, there was some scientific understanding of the malting process. There were established techniques and processes that scientists had begun to understand.

Paul Manglesdorf pointed out that barley is “virtually useless” for bread making. He found it difficult to believe that “the foundations of Western Civilisation were laid by an ill fed people living in a perpetual state of partial intoxication” (page 520). He did not recognise germinated grain among the samples that he analysed from Jarmo, concluding that the earliest cereals were not used for brewing or baking but that they were used as ‘popped’ or ‘parched’ grains.

Linton noted the difficulty of making finely ground flour suitable for bread using a pestle and mortar or rubbing stones (page 524) and Oppenheim (page 525) suggested that gruel made from coarsely ground grits was the most likely product being made by the first farmers.

There was no consensus of opinion. After this auspicious start, the question of ‘bread or beer’ rested, debate appears to have died down and there was little further discussion. Presumably, it remained a controversial idea. The debate was resurrected in the late 1980s. In 1986, Solomon Katz and Mary Voigt published a paper in Expedition, volume 25/2 "Bread and Beer: the early use of cereals in the human diet" in which they presented a new paradigm: the biocultural development of cuisine. Their hypothesis included the idea that epi-palaeolithic hunter-gatherers had discovered that slightly sprouted grain tasted sweeter. I'd agree with their hypothesis. It would not be too difficult to discover this. The debate is not just about beer or bread, flour, porridge or gruel. It is also about making malt, malt sugars, the wort. I wrote my thesis, "Barley Malt and Ale in the Neolithic" about this, but I am not the first person to suggest the idea of maltsters in the epi-palaeolithic. Without malt there would be no wort and no ale or beer.

Grain processing was not necessarily a backbreaking, dreary chore of grinding the grain into a rough kind of flour to make unleavened bread.

The processes of malting and mashing magically transform inedible grain starch into delicious, sweet malt sugars. It could even be considered the first alchemy. The biblical phrase ‘land of milk and honey’ might refer to domesticated animals and the milk that they produced, as well as the production of liquid sugars from cereals, what brewers today call wort.

Malt and sweet barley mash are likely candidates for the things that the first farmers were interested in making. The accidental discovery of fermentation, whereby sugars are transformed into alcohol, followed closely behind. The spent grain that is left after sparging makes excellent animal fodder (Dineley, 2006). Spent grain is not alcoholic, it's just the slightly sweet barley husks and mash that is left after the malt sugars have been washed through.

Maltsters have known, for millennia, what they need to do with harvested grain in order to make sugars. Malting is an ancient skill, based upon techniques that, even today, have an element of magic, ritual and mystery. Making malt and malt sugars from the grain was one of the new technologies of the epi-palaeolithic. These grain processing techniques were discovered in the fertile crescent, these new skills crossed Europe, eventually arriving in the British Isles around five or six thousand years ago.  

neolithic farmers of the British Isles
What were the early neolithic farmers of the British Isles making with the grain that they grew? The transformation of grain into ale can be accurately described as both a ritual and a domestic activity and it seems to have been an important aspect of the neolithic cultural package. In the British Isles, harvested grain was being made into ale, an intoxicating beverage to be consumed, perhaps, at ceremonial sites. The making of the ale was as much of a ritual as its' consumption. 

further reading
My paper on the craft of the maltster was finally published, I put it on my page here

I wrote an article, based on the paper, for Brewer and Distiller International about the archaeological evidence for floor malting. It was published in the February issue, 2016: Who were the first maltsters? 


Bellwood P. 2005 First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies. Blackwell.

Binford L. 1968 Post Pleistocene Adaptations. In S. Binford and L. Binford (eds) New perspectives in Archaeology. Chicago.

Braidwood R. (1953) Did Man once live by bread alone? American Anthropologist 55, 515-526.

Braidwood R., Braidwood L., Howe B., Reed C. & Watson P. eds 1983 Prehistoric Archaeology across the Zagros Flanks. University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publications Vol 105, Chicago. here

Dineley M & Dineley G 2000 Neolithic ale: Barley as a source of malt sugars for fermentation. In Fairbairn A (ed) Plants in Neolithic Britain and beyond. Neolithic Studies Group Seminar Papers 5, 137-155, Oxbow Books. Paper presented at the Spring Meeting of the Neolithic Studies Group, Royal Academy, London, March, 1998.

Dineley M. 2006 The Use of Spent Grain as Cattle Feed in the Neolithic. In D. Serjeantson and D. Field (eds) Animals in the Neolithic of Britain and Europe, Neolithic Studies Group Seminar papers 7, Oxbow Books. Paper presented to the Spring Meeting of the Neolithic Studies Group, British Museum, 2004

Flannery K. 1974 The Origins of Agriculture. Annual Review of Anthropology, 2, 271-310.

Harlan J. R. 1967 A Wild Wheat Harvest in Turkey. Archaeology 20, 197-201.

Hayden B. 1990 Nimrods, Piscators, Pluckers and Planters: the emergence of food production. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology Vol 9, No 1, 31-69.

Harris D. R. 1996 The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia Routledge.

Katz S. & Voigt M. 1986 Bread and Beer: the early use of cereals in the human diet. Expedition Vol 25/2, 23-34 here

Maisels C. 1993 The Emergence of Civilisation. Routledge.

Smith B. 1998 The Emergence of Agriculture Scientific American Library, New York.

Zohary D. and Hopf M. 2001 Domestication of Plants in the Old World: the origin and spread of cultivated plants in West Asia, Europe and the Nile Valley. Clarendon Press, Oxford Science Publications.