From the Neolithic Revolution to Gluten Intolerance: Benefits and Problems Associated with the Cultivation of Wheat


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WHY ARE THERE SO MANY CASES OF GLUTEN INTOLERANCE?It is difficult to believe that intolerance to one of the most common components of food (bread, pasta) in our environment might provoke such severe immunomediated reactions in any part of the human body. The list is endless, but to attribute malignancies, adverse pregnancy outcome, and impaired brain function to gluten intolerance would seem to be excessive. On the other hand, we have reported on a group of patients affected by drug-resistant epilepsy with cerebral calcifications, half of whom were cured by a gluten-free diet. All of them had atrophic jejunal mucosa, which recovered on a gluten-free diet (1).In addition, we know that the majority of gluten-intolerant subjects, identified by family or population screening, do not have any complaints, although they do have flat intestinal mucosa (2). It seems that a sizable proportion of our population (from 0.3 to 1%) is gluten intolerant and reacts with a wide spectrum of symptoms, from no apparent reaction to severe life-threatening diseases. This intolerance is strongly linked to specific genetic markers that have been selected over thousands of years, while environmental changes, for example, dietary changes, require only centuries to occur. Where do all these cases of gluten-intolerance come from?HUNTERS, FISHERS, AND GATHERERSHuman beings have been on earth for over three million years, but Homo sapiens for only about a hundred thousand years. For about ninety thousand years he conducted a nomadic life, obtaining food by hunting, fishing, and collecting fruits, seeds, herbs, and vegetables. Ten thousand years ago the last glaciation came to an end: a neothermal period ensued, which marked the passage from the paleolithic to the neolithic age. The ice gradually melted from the equator to the poles over several thousands of years. While new fertile and humid lands were uncovered in Southeast Asia, all of Europe was still blanketed with ice; the northern countries had to wait up to another four thousand years to get out of a frozen environment. During this period some nomadic tribes started settling down as they developed the ability to gather enough food to store.THE GREAT REVOLUTIONThe First FarmersThe discovery of methods of producing and storing food has been the greatest revolution mankind has ever experienced. In the passage from collection to production of food originated the first system by which human labor gained income over long periods of time. The principle of property was consolidated, and fortifications to protect the land and food stores were developed. Archaeological findings suggest that this revolution was not initiated by the male hunter and warrior, but by the intelligent observations made by women. Women collected seeds, herbs, roots, and tubers. During this activity they probably observed the fall of grain seeds to the ground and their penetration into the soil with rain (3).To our knowledge, the origin of farming practices must be located in the “Fertile Crescent”: the wide belt of Southeast Asia that includes southern Turkey, Palestine, Lebanon, and northern Iraq. In the highlands of this area, abundant rainfall was caused by the neothermal switch. In this area existed, and still exists, a wide variety of wild cereals. The majority of wild cereals had very few seeds (2-4), which easily fell on the ground at maturation. Triticum dicoccoides (wheat) and Hordeum spontaneum (barley) were commonly collected by the local dwellers.The people from the Uadi el-Natuf Tell in Southeast Asia (7800 B.C.) provide the first evidence of a gradual shift from hunting to grain cultivation.

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