Wandering wheat

Wandering wheat

Aylin Öney Tan - aylinoneytan@yahoo.com
Wandering wheat

Back in the 1960’s, Jack Harlan, a devoted American agronomist harvested wild wheat in southeastern Turkey as if a gatherer would do 10,000 years ago. He first tried using only his hands; hand-stripping the mature wheat ears, then he tried using a replica of an ancient sickle, a razor-sharp flint blade embedded in a wooden handle. He was quite efficient, though apparently lacking the expertise of the ancient men who lived in the same spot thousands of years ago. 

Dr. Jack Harlan was one of the founders of the modern plant genetic sources and a specialist on the domestication of crops. His Anatolian harvest was one of the earliest examples of experimental archaeology in Turkey, reaping wild wheat as if it would have been done in Neolithic times, both using the hand-stripping method and using ancient tools. Though the former was less efficient, both methods proved to be quite effective, a crop of 2.05-2.45 kilograms per hour could easily be harvested. That amount reaped about 46 percent of actual grain, so it was easy to have a yield of one kilogram of grain per hour. At this rate, a family would be able to harvest a year’s supply easily within three weeks during the harvest season. 

Harlan is long gone, but wild wheat patches still wander in the Anatolian landscape. One fascinating fact about Anatolia is the ancient wild wheat varieties that still exist, popping up in certain areas, usually not far from ancient Neolithic sites. In the province of Diyarbakır, occasional batches of wild wheat grow near hillsides close to Ergani, and further south, on the outskirts of the Karacadağ Mountains. When I was on an expedition trip for mapping the food heritage of southeastern Turkey two years ago, I was astonished to hear about the wandering wild wheat; locals in the area say according to wind and rainfall, the patches of the wild varieties appear each spring in different places, sometimes kilometers apart. These wandering wheat patches are the evidence of uninterrupted existence of ancient wheat varieties in Turkey. They usually go uncollected now, but most probably wild wheat continued to be collected by peasants until a couple of decades ago. Although it is known, the high crop yielding new wheat varieties are preferred commercially. If conditions permit, locals tend to continue sowing old varieties for their own consumption.

Ethnobotanist Dr. Füsun Ertuğ, who has conducted field studies throughout Anatolia, confirms even if modern commercial seeds are sown, peasants still keep ancient crops at bay. This shows true ancient wisdom, the local wheat landraces sometimes have almost double the protein compared to the new modern wheat varieties. 

The transition to agriculture marks a benchmark in human history. Anatolia is home to the earliest beginnings of cultivation of sustenance crops by humans. Thanks to advanced studies in archaeological sub-disciplines like archaeobotany, palaeoethnobotany, archaeo-antropology, ethnoarchaeology, ethnobotany, zooarchaeology and experimental archaeology, we can picture Neolithic life and foodways to a great extent. Almost all Neolithic archaeological teams in Turkey are now cooperating with archaeobotanists to understand how people sustained themselves and how they lived. Among all, like Jack Harlan’s extraordinary harvest, the Çatalhöyük excavation had been a pioneer in conducting an interdisciplinary approach under the directorship of Ian Hodder since 1993.  Beyond doubt, one of the most significant changes in human life is the “food production revolution,” otherwise known as the Neolithic revolution, an era whose agricultural practices lasted for over centuries.

To explore this rich agricultural past, which has its reflections up today, go and see the Çatalhöyük exhibition. Koç University’s Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations (ANAMED) is hosting the exhibition “The Curious Case of Çatalhöyük,” celebrating the 25th excavation season of the Çatalhöyük Research Project.

The exhibition will remain open at the ANAMED Gallery in Istanbul from June 21 to Oct. 25, 2017.


Bite of the Week


Recipe of the Week: One of the most refreshing summer dishes in Anatolia is cold yogurt soup. It is simply boiled wheat berries mixed with yogurt and chilled, sometimes with a handful of herbs to accentuate the refreshing effect. Soak one cup of whole, unbroken wheat berries in plenty of water overnight or for couple of hours. Put them in a pot with double the amount of fresh water and one teaspoon of salt. Boil it until tender, just beginning to puff. Let it cool in its cooking juices; if it gets too thick and tends to solidify, you may add a little bit of warm water to slightly dilute it. It has to have the consistency of a thick soup. When still slightly warm, mix in two to three cups of strained yogurt, mix thoroughly, adjusting the seasoning. Add some chopped herbs like fresh mint, wild oregano, or pennyroyal according to your preference. For an even heartier version, go for the old wheat varieties, such as siyez, which you can find as bulgur, par-boiled cracked wheat. 

Fork of the Week: “Siyez bulguru” might be what you look for if you wander through supermarket shelves in search of heirloom wheat varieties. It is the bulgur (cracked wheat) made from Triticum monococcum, one of the oldest varieties of domesticated wheat in Anatolia. Thanks to the rising interest in unchanged wheat landraces, “siyez” is enjoying a striking revival, now there are also “siyez” flour breads in selected markets, perfect for having a bite of the past!

Cork of the Week: With the soaring heats, the only drink to go for is an ice-cold beer. Make it a wheat beer, in celebration of our Neolithic ancestry; Erdinger is one of the few wheat beers available in the Turkish market. Cheers to golden wheat!