That people do not live “by bread alone” is emphatically demonstrated by the domestication of a range of foodstuffs and the cultural diversity of food combinations and preparations. But even though many foods have been brought under human control, it was the domestication of cereals that marked the earliest transition to a food-producing way of life. Barley, one of the cereals to be domesticated, offered a versatile, hardy crop with an (eventual) tolerance for a wide range of climatic and ecological conditions. Once domesticated, barley also offered humans a wide range of valuable products and uses.
The origins of wheat and barley agriculture are to be found some 10, 000 years ago in the ancient Near East. Cereal domestication was probably encouraged by significant climatic and environmental changes that occurred at the end of the glaciated Pleistocene period, and intensive harvesting and manipulation of wild cereals resulted in those morphological changes that today identify domesticated plants. Anthropologists and biologists continue to discuss the processes and causes of domestication, as we have done in this book’s chapter on wheat, and most of the arguments and issues covered there are not reviewed here. All experts agree, however, on the importance of interdisciplinary research and multiple lines of evidence in reconstructing the story of cereal domestication.
Readers of this chapter may note some close similarities to the evidence for wheat domestication and an overlap with several important archaeological sites. Nonetheless, barley has a different story to tell. Barley grains and plant fragments are regular components of almost all sites with any plant remains in the Near East, regardless of period or food-producing strategy. Wild barley thrives widely in the Near East today – on slopes, in lightly grazed and fired pastures, in scrub-oak clearings, in fields and field margins, and along roadsides. These circumstances suggest a different set of research questions about barley domestication,such as: What was barley used for? Was its domestication a unique event? And how long did barley domestication take