by Anna Rita Mazzoli
biologist and nutritionalist

the ancient food of man

Cereals are plants that produce ears and seeds that contain very little water and are rich in starches. They are part of the Gramineae family, most of them herbaceous plants that can be found growing almost all over the world, especially in the meadows, the steppes and the savanas. The word cereals comes from Ceres, the Roman goddess of tillage and corn, and is used to indicate plants that were part of man's basic diet as "resistence foods", in other words, capable of providing energy of medium or long-term duration. The most important of these cereals are: wheat, rice, barley, maslin grain, oats, millet and maize. Buck wheat is also included among the cereals although it is in actual fact part of the Polygonaceae family.

Reconstruction of a Neolithic village
Cereals have characterized man's diet for thousands of years. The very first traces of this kind of cultivation date back to 11.000 years ago, when man gradually progressed from a hunting and collecting economy to agriculture and the direct production of his own food, marking what was a real revolution in the history of mankind. In Europe this event constituted the beginning of the Neolithic Age, the last period of the Stone Age, which was characterized by the new, skilfully made, lithic instruments introduced by the farmers. The earliest forms of agricultural development are first to be found in regions of the Middle East, China, Central and Southern America. Each region cultivated one particular basic food crop, which in some cases still remains the same today: wheat and wild barley was cultivated in the Middle East, between the Iraq and Turkey of today, millet and rice in China, and maize in Mexico and the Northern Andes.

Plantation of maize in Africa.
Originally from the Americas,
today it is the basic food for a great many African countries. (Photo Blue PlanetŠ)
A greater availability of food led to a growth in the population, the search for new lands, and the consequent spread of agriculture. This expansion started in the Middle East about 9000 years ago and continued to spread very slowly towards Europe and Iran, Pakistan and India. It reached the furthermost parts of Europe, like England and Spain, about 5000 years ago. As these farmers and cattle breeders increased, they gradually intermarried with the local populations of hunters and collectors. Therefore there is absolutely nothing new about the recent fad for complete cereals, naturally ground in stone mills, for they have nourished man for thousands of years: in fact refined cereals and white flour, symbols of wealth and civilization, have only been in general use since the late 19th century
Silvia Messeri & Sandro Pintus

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