Meet these Ancient Grains: Re-Discovering the Ancient Wheat Varieties

Ancient grains are grains which were first domesticated at the dawn of agriculture. Einkorn, emmer (this group includes khorasan and durum), and spelt are considered ancient grains in the wheat family. Heirloom varieties of other common grains besides wheat — such as black barley, red and black rice, blue corn — might also be considered ancient grains. All ancient grains are by definition also "heritage".

The term “heritage wheat” refers to any variety that existed before the introduction of high-yielding, hybridized grains during the Green Revolution in the mid-20th century.  Some experts, however, prefer to apply the term more strictly to include only those varieties known to exist before the 1880s, such as the Lammas varieties, Fulcaster, Lancaster Red, Red Fife, Marquis, Rouge de Bordeaux, and Turkey Red.

Heritage wheats are open-pollinated, which means they vary genetically from generation to generation. This fuels biodiversity and stronger farming systems. Open pollination also produces seeds that are better able to adapt to local conditions — critical for plant resiliency in the face of increasing weather fluctuations due to climate change. Heritage wheats tend to be taller, with larger root systems than modern wheat.


Einkorn, which is known as the first of the founding grains, was cultivated during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age throughout the Fertile Crescent. Einkorn is small in size, contains only 2 sets of 7 chromosomes, and has a much lower gluten structure than its modern grain counterparts that have 42 or more chromosomes.


Emmer is the second oldest of the ancestral wheats, originating over 8000 years ago. Grown for millennia in the Middle East, North Africa and Italy, Emmer gave rise to all durum wheat and Khorasan, which it pre-dated by over 4000 years. Emmer is a tetraploid meaning it is a cross of two very simple wild diploid grasses and has only 4 chromosome sets.

Khorasan, sometimes called the Prophet's wheat or the Pharaoh’s wheat, originated over 4000 years ago. Like its parent Emmer, it too has a tetraploid make-up, meaning it is a cross of two very simple ancient diploid grasses and has 4 chromosome sets.   A variety of Khorasan is commercially grown as Kamut® in the US.


Spelt is another ancient grain native to southern Europe, and is also one of the first four founding ancient grains. Spelt is about 2000 years younger than Emmer and gave rise to common bread wheat (Triticum, aestivum). It is a hexaploid, a cross between Emmer and another indigenous wild grass, and it contains 6 sets of chromosomes.

Other Ancient Grains

Sonora, Lancaster Red, Red Fife and others are heritage wheats that pre-date the 1880s, when the shift to modern wheat started. These boast exceptional flavor and baking properties while remaining largely unaltered by modern genetic modification.  Belonging to the spelt and common bread wheat species, these too are hexaploids.