While ancient warriors ate a variety of fresh foods, armies maintained strength by consuming high quality grains on a daily basis. Grains had to be easy to transport and even easier to cultivate in a variety of climates as warriors set out to conquer the world. Today these grains are still available and we highly recommend incorporating them into your daily menu.
Amaranth From the Greek word amarantos, which means unwithering. It’s a tough grain and it grows hardy like a weed, which is why it symbolized immortality to ancient civilizations. While there are more than 70 species of amaranth, including Amaranthus palmeri, which is herbicide-resistant even to Roundup, the three ancient amaranth grains still used today are Amaranthus caudatus, Amaranthus cruentus, and Amaranthus hypochondriacus. Amaranth is extremely easy to harvest because it’s so hardy. It’s high in protein and the amino acid lysine. It provides 30% more protein than rice, it’s easy to prepare and it grows quickly. The only difficulty is finding a distributor, but some consumers have discovered it’s quite easy to grow their own at home because it requires little effort. In the future, Amaranth may help address health problems and malnutrition globally because its seeds are also high in fiber, calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, and vitamins A and C.
Barley The Greeks mixed barley and herbs to make a slightly fermented malt. Roman gladiators called barley hordearii and ate it for strength. In Tibet, barley was pounded into flour to make tsampa, which fed its great armies. The Egyptians ate barley bread and drank barley beer. Barley contains eight essential amino acids and is high in magnesium, protein, B vitamins, calcium and fiber. While barley contains the protein gluten, it’s also a low-glycemic food that can help fight diabetes and lower cholesterol.
Buckwheat This ancient grain originated in mountains of southern China and it has a unique history in that it made its way west primarily through wars, invasions and trade routes. Some historians believe it was the choice grain of armies because it grew in very poor soil and in short growing seasons. The Dutch believed it was a holy grain and called it “boek weit” which became “book wheat” and finally buckwheat. Today buckwheat is still considered a miracle food in Russia and is the main ingredient in its modern cuisines. In the United States, nitrogen fertilizer is to blame for the loss of this once common crop. Buckwheat is a rich source of starch, proteins, antioxidants, and dietary fiber as well as trace elements. In some parts of the world it’s called the “king of healing grains” due to its extensive list of health benefits.
Millets Palaeoethnobotanists believe there’s enough evidence to support a theory that millets, a term that encompass a wide variety of grass crops that produce edible seeds, were more common in ancient diets than rice. In China, Korea and Japan, archaeologist believe the earliest signs of cultivation date between 8300 and 6700 BC. Millets, like other grains, moved westward into Europe where they were later transported on colonial ships bound for North America. Millets grow exceptionally well in dry areas where the soil is poor, but also grow well in warm, moist climates. On average, millets are 12% protein, 8% fiber and 75% completely digestible. Millets contain B vitamins and critical amino acids.
Wheat Einkorn and Emmer were two of the most widely cultivated grains in the ancient world. Both have nearly double the fiber and protein of modern grains and are high in magnesium, iron, selenium, zinc and vitamins B and E. It’s said the Romans were able to expand their empire by feeding their soldiers porridge, called puls, made from these superior wheats. Einkorn wheat is one of the earliest recorded grains in the Bible, also known as shippon in Hebrew or farro einkorn. In academic literature, it’s often called the Mother Wheat, as it’s the parent of all other wheats. Emmer wheat was also first cultivated in the Middle East in Mesopotamia and it’s particularly rich in phytonutrients which stimulate the immune system as well as lignans and betaine which can aid in reducing inflammation throughout the body.