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Cereal evolution during Antiquity and the Islamic period in North Africa: a preliminary review of the archaeobotanical and textual evidence

Abstract : North Africa is the scene of important changes, differentiated from east to west, in cereal production during Antiquity and the Islamic period. These changes have direct implications for several essential steps in cereal cultivation, processing, storage, consumption and trade. The purpose of this study is to present a preliminary synthesis of published and unpublished archaeobotanical data, composed of cereal caryopsis and chaff finds, that have been found in archaeological sites of North Africa (from the Moroccan coast to the Suez Canal) between the late 8th century BC and the 16th century AD. Spatialised archaeobotanical data is compared to written sources in order to highlight major cereal trends in time and space. In Egypt, studies of cereal finds and Demotic and Greek texts show that emmer (Triticum turgidum ssp. dicoccon), cultivated for six millennia with hulled barley, is replaced by hard/rivet wheat (Triticum turgidum ssp. durum/turgidum) during the 2nd half of the 1st millennium BC. We suggest that this important change from hulled to naked wheat meets important demographic changes and the need to trade cereal to feed a growing urban population. During Roman and Islamic times, sporadic data indicate that emmer continued to be cultivated on a small scale. In Maghreb, cereal records show a larger diversity. Hulled and naked wheat and barley are attested for the Neolithic times. Naked barley (Hordeum vulgare) is not registered afterwards, while emmer and einkorn (Triticum monococcum) are still attested during the 8th-1st centuries BC and the Middle Ages, along with hulled barley and bread wheat (Triticum aestivum ssp. aestivum). Tetraploid wheat is recorded sporadically during these periods. The limited data in Maghreb, especially for Antiquity, prevents us from detecting a replacement of hulled wheat by naked wheat as observed in Egypt. Tropical cereal crops, such as broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum), foxtail millet (Setaria italica), pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) and sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) developed in Western and Eastern North Africa between the 6th century BC and the 1st-2nd centuries AD, according to different patterns. Concerning oat (Avena sp.), grains found mixed with cereal assemblages likely correspond to wild species. This preliminary synthesis shows a diversity of cereal crops and diachronic and regional differences in Northern Africa. These dynamics imply technical, cultural and economic factors that will be discussed.
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Contributor : Charlène Bouchaud <>
Submitted on : Monday, October 28, 2019 - 4:55:28 PM
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  • HAL Id : hal-02336207, version 1


Charlène Bouchaud, Marie-Pierre Ruas, Damien Agut-Labordère, François Lerouxel, Claire Newton, et al.. Cereal evolution during Antiquity and the Islamic period in North Africa: a preliminary review of the archaeobotanical and textual evidence. 9h International Workshop of African Archaeobotany, Jun 2018, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain. ⟨hal-02336207⟩



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