The history of Wheat

10,000 B.C.

Wheat – since the beginning of civilization

  • Rock PaintingWheat grain has been used for thousands of years to provide food for humans. Wheat has been found in pits where human settlements flourished over 8,000 years ago. In the British Museum, you can see actual loaves that were made and baked in Egypt over 5,000 years ago.
  • Wheat is the product of a cross between three different grass species which is reputed to have happened about 10,000 B.C.


6,700 B.C.

  • In the stone age, man ground grains of wheat with rocks to make flour. Man understood that he could grow food as well as hunt food.

5,500 B.C.

  • Millstones used for grinding flour.

    The ability to sow and reap cereals may be one of the chief causes which led man to dwell in communities, rather than to live a wandering life hunting and herding cattle.

Quernstones were used to grind grain into flour by hand
Image supplied by Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service

3,000 B.C.

  • The Egyptians were the first to produce risen loaves using yeast, probably by accident when beer was used to mix dough instead of water.
  • The Egyptians used the first bread oven.
  • Model granaries were included in tombs to provide food in the afterlife.

An illustration of Emmer wheat originally  grown in Babylonia

200 B.C.

  • The Romans started to use animal power to grind wheat.
  • The Romans used sieves to produce finer flour.
  • Baking ovens were improved. Two kinds of oven were developed; the Beehive and the Pot oven.

Watercolour depicting an animal powered mill

168 B.C.

  • The Roman Baker’s Guild, or Pistorum, was created. A pistore was a ‘pounder’, traditionally a greek slave.

    The importance of bread to daily life meant that bakers were recognised as freemen of the city. All other craftsmen were slaves.

85 B.C.

  • Watermills were introduced to Asia Minor.

1180 - 1190 A.D.

  • Windmills were introduced to Syria, France and England.

1180 - 1190 A.D. - Windmills were introduced to Syria, France and England

1400 – 1600

  • In the Middle Ages, windmills and watermills were built closer to where the grain was grown.
  • Crop rotation was introduced. The first rotations only alternated grassland and crops, but the big breakthrough in the 18th century was the ‘Norfolk four course’, attributed to Turnip Townsend who introduced the sequence of wheat/root crop/fallow/beans.

    As the population grew, breadmaking was firmly established as a business and a trade.


  • The Great Fire of London originated in the King’s Baker shop on Pudding Lane, 2nd September 1666.
  • Within five days the city was ravaged by fire. An area of one and a half miles by half a mile lay in ashes; 373 acres inside the city wall, 63 acres outside, 87 churches and 13,200 houses.

1700 – 1800

  • The Industrial Revolution (considered by many to have occurred between 1760 and 1830) was a time of upheaval as the population grew and people moved from villages to towns and cities.
  • As farming improved, so did the grain. The amount of grain harvested also increased.
  • Jethro Tull invented the mechanical seed drill. This resulted in farming becoming less labour intensive and allowed farmers to grow crops on a much larger scale.

1850 - 1900

  • Between 1856 and 1863 Gregor Mendel tested almost 28,000 pea plants in his quest to perfect his ‘Laws of Inheritance’ which in turn led to the modern study of genetics.

    However, it was not until the early part of the 20th century that Mendel’s theories were put to commercial use.
  • The methods for making bread changed. Silk sieves were introduced and square or oblong baking tins were invented, making it easier to slice the bread.

    To meet the demands of the growing population, long-lasting flour was needed. Those elements that spoiled the flour, the outer bran and germ layer, were taken out. Unfortunately, these contained most of the wheat’s nutrients.

1900 onwards

  • Crop breeding advances have increased the quality and yield of wheat and production has become more efficient thanks to improvements in management and mechanisation.
  • Inorganic fertilisers have boosted yield and quality and crop protection has improved so farmers are losing less of their yield to pests, disease and weeds.
  • The increase in global trade in wheat has meant that farmers now face competition from many other markets.
  • Because the wheat trade is now strictly regulated, modern farming now requires technological and administrative skills as well as agricultural ones.
  • Modern bakeries are hi-tech and hygienic and yet can still satisfy our demands for traditional-style loaves

21st Century

Plant Science

  • Fundamental research on the biology of cereals to understand how genetics can affect the physical properties of wheat.
  • A major goal is to develop the technology and knowledge to be able to predict how wheat varieties will behave under future breeding conditions.
  • This will ensure high-yielding, stress and disease resistant varieties that require less herbicides and fertilisers for successful growth.
  • The research being done today at places such as the John Innes Centre, Norwich will provide ecologically sound crops for a wide variety of environments throughout the world.

Food Science

  • The Institute of Food Research, Norwich, UK were partners in a "farm to fork" DEFRA link project to increase the levels of selenium in wheat which is an essential element for the human immune system. Intake has decreased over the last 30 years because we no longer import high selenium wheat used for milling from North America. Instead we grow 80% of our own milling wheat in soils which are low in selenium.
  • By applying just a few grams of selenium at the right time to wheat they showed that it is possible to produce safely, and without harming the environment, bread that could restore the average dietary selenium intakes to recommended levels.

National Cereals Collection

  • The national small grain cereal collection held at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK is the largest in Britain. It is a ‘living museum’ of seeds and is widely used by plant scientists and breeders.
  • The collection constitutes a vital bank of genetic material. Some varieties date back to the late 18th century while others have been collected from all over the world.
  • Recent advances in DNA technology have made it possible to examine many of the older and more exotic varieties of wheat in order to try to isolate characteristics that can benefit modern farmers.
  • Some of the older varieties that could tolerate poor soil may be useful to organic farmers since they need less fertiliser.
  • The vital work done at John Innes Centre will ensure that wheat remains one of the world’s most important plants for generations to come.