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Barley (Hordeum vulgare) is an annual cereal grain, which serves as a major animal feed crop, with smaller amounts used for malting and in health food. It is a member of the grass family Poaceae. In 2005, barley ranked fourth in quantity produced and in area of cultivation of cereal crops in the world (560,000 km²). (H. vulgare) is descended from wild barley (Hordeum spontaneum). Both forms are diploid (2n=14 chromosomes). As wild barley is interfertile with domesticated barley, the two forms are often treated as one species, Hordeum vulgare, divided into subspecies spontaneum (wild) and subspecies vulgare (domesticated). The main difference between the two forms is the brittle rachis of the former, which enables seed dispersal in the wild. The earliest finds of wild barley come from Epi-Paleolithic sites in the Levant, beginning in the Natufian. The earliest domesticated barley occurs at Aceramic Neolithic sites in the Near East such as the (PPN B) layers of Tell Abu Hureyra in Syria. Barley was one of the first crops domesticated in the Near East, at the same time as einkorn and emmer wheat.
Barley was, alongside emmer wheat, a staple cereal of ancient Egypt, where it was used to make bread and beer; together, these were a complete diet. The general name for barley is jt (hypothetically pronounced “eat”); šma (hypothetically pronounced “SHE-ma”) refers to Upper Egyptian barley and is a symbol of Upper Egypt. According to Deuteronomy 8:8, barley is one of the “Seven Species” of crops that characterize the fertility of the Promised Land of Canaan, and barley has a prominent role in the Israelite sacrifices described in the Pentateuch (see e.g. Numbers 5:15).
In ancient Greece, the ritual significance of barley possibly dates back to the earliest stages of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The preparatory kykeon or mixed drink of the initiates, prepared from barley and herbs, was referred to in the Homeric hymn to Demeter, who was also called “Barley-mother”.
The practice was to dry the barley groats and roast them before preparing the porridge, according to Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (xviii.72). This produces malt that soon ferments and becomes slightly alcoholic.
Tibetan barley has been the only major staple food in Tibet for centuries. It is made into a flour product called tsampa.
Palaeoethnobotanists have found that barley has been grown in the Korean Peninsula since the Early Mumun Pottery Period (c. 1500–850 BCE) along with other crops such as millet, wheat, and legumes (Crawford and Lee 2003).
According to the 1881 Household Cyclopedia:
Next to wheat the most valuable grain is barley, especially on light and sharp soils. It is a tender grain and easily hurt in any of the stages of its growth, particularly at seed time; a heavy shower of rain will then almost ruin a crop on the best prepared land; and in all the after processes greater pains and attention are required to ensure success than in the case of other grains. The harvest process is difficult, and often attended with danger; even the threshing of it is not easily executed with machines, because the awn generally adheres to the grain, and renders separation from the straw a troublesome task. Barley, in fact, is raised at greater expense than wheat, and generally speaking is a more hazardous crop. Except upon rich and genial soils, where climate will allow wheat to be perfectly reared, it ought not to be cultivated.