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Spelt (Triticum spelta) is a hexaploid species of wheat. Spelt was an important staple in parts of Europe from the Bronze Age to medieval times; it now survives as a relict crop in Central Europe and has found a new market as a health food. Spelt is sometimes considered a subspecies of the closely related species common wheat (T. aestivum), in which case its botanical name is considered to be Triticum aestivum subsp. spelta.
Spelt has a complex history. It is a hexaploid wheat species known from genetic evidence to have originated as a hybrid of a domesticated tetraploid wheat such as emmer wheat and the wild goat-grass Aegilops tauschii. This hybridization must have taken place in the Near East because this is where Ae. tauschii grows, and it must have taken place prior to the appearance of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum, a hexaploid free-threshing derivative of spelt) in the archaeological record c. 8000 years ago.
Genetic evidence shows that spelt wheat can also arise as the result of hybridization of bread wheat and emmer wheat, although only at some date following the initial Aegilops-tetraploid wheat hybridisation. The much later appearance of spelt in Europe might thus be the result of a later, second, hybridization event between emmer and bread wheat. Recent DNA evidence supports an independent origin for European spelt, through this hybridization. However whether spelt has two separate origins in Asia and Europe, or single origin in the Near East, is currently unresolved.
The earliest archeological evidence of spelt is from the fifth millennium BC in Transcaucasia, north of the Black Sea. However, the most abundant and best-documented archaeological evidence of spelt is in Europe. Remains of spelt have been found in some later Neolithic sites (2500 - 1700 BC) in Central Europe. During the Bronze Age, spelt spread widely in central Europe. In the Iron Age (750-15 BC), spelt became a principal wheat species in southern Germany and Switzerland, and by 500 BC also in southern Britain.
References to the cultivation of spelt wheat in Biblical times (see matzo), in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and in ancient Greece, are incorrect, and result from confusion with emmer wheat.
In the Middle Ages, spelt was cultivated in parts of Switzerland, Tyrol and Germany. Spelt was introduced to the United States in the 1890s. In the 20th century, spelt was replaced in almost all those areas in which it was still grown by bread wheat. As spelt requires fewer fertilizers, the organic farming movement made it more popular again towards the end of the century.