Barley and Lentils Back in the Day

A new paper [paywall] in the journal Science reports that recent archeological findings show that agriculture had started in Iran on the far edge of the Fertile Crescent 12,000 years ago. The Los Angeles Times:

For decades, archaeologists believed agriculture took root in a part of the Fertile Crescent called the Levant, which includes present-day Israel, Lebanon and Jordan, as well as parts of Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other countries. From there, it was thought to have spread eastward to present-day Iran.

“The eastern Fertile Crescent has been treated as backwater,” said Melinda Zeder, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Institute’s Program in Human Ecology and Archaeobiology, who was not involved in the study. Now, the understanding that people in the Zagros grew and ground cereal grains as early as their counterparts in the Levant has “democratized this situation where everyone in the region was involved,” she said.

The Salt:

riehl4hrThere were stone tools, too: things that looked like sickles, and mortar and pestles, some clearly used for grinding food. And then there were the grains and seeds — hundreds of them, charred but otherwise intact and well preserved.

Now, Conard is no botanist. He’s an expert on stone tools. But even his untrained eye recognized some of the grains.

“They look like lentils you might buy at the store, or pieces of wheat or barley you might have encountered in other aspects of life.”

He suspected he was looking at an “agricultural village,” but he sent the grains to his colleague to double check.


“That was a fantastic feeling, when I first get these plant remains under the microscope,” says Riehl, an archaeobotanist at the University of Tubingen.

She confirmed that the grains were indeed varieties of lentils, barley and peas. She also identified a range of nuts and grasses, and a kind of wheat called Emmer, known to be a commonly grown crop in later centuries throughout the Middle East.

But most of the grains Riehl looked at were pre-agricultural. “They were cultivating what we consider wild progenitors of modern crops,” says Riehl.

Here’s a recipe that combines elements of what those folks might have been eating. I cook lentils with spinach a lot, but I’ve used arugula here because our arugula is a lot closer to it’s ancient predecessor.


½ lb. chopped bacon (ends are perfect)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 carrots, finely chopped
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
1 tsp. cumin seeds,
½ tsp. dried thyme
12 cups chicken broth
1 cup pearled barley, rinsed
¾ cupred lentils, rinsed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ lb. arugula, coarsely chopped


1. Heat oil in a 5-quart pot over medium-high heat; add bacon, cook until 2/3rds done.

2. Add carrots,and onions, along with cumin, and thyme. Cook, stirring, until lightly browned, 10–15 minutes. Add chicken broth, and barley and season with salt and pepper to taste.

3. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until barley is al dente about 35 minutes. Add lentils. Cook about 10 more minutes until lentils are done. Red lentils cook much faster than other lentils so adjust accordingly if you are using a different type of lentil. Stir in arugula at the end.


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About Marc Brazeau

Free lance cultural attaché. Writing at REALFOOD.ORG.

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