Garlic Domestication - Where Did it Come from and When?

What Culinary Genius Society First Came Up with Domesticated Garlic?

Garlic cloves on display at the Royal Horticultural Society's 2015 Harvest Festival Show.
Garlic cloves on display at the Royal Horticultural Society's 2015 Harvest Festival Show. Ben Pruchnie / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Garlic is undoubtedly one of the true joys of the culinary life on our planet. Although there is some debate about it, the most recent theory based on molecular and biochemical research is that garlic (Allium sativum L.) was first developed from wild Allium longicuspis Regel in Central Asia, about 5,000-6,000 years ago. Wild A. longicuspis is found in the Tien Shan (Celestial or Heavenly) mountains, on the border between China and Kyrgyrstan, and those mountains were home to the great horseback traders of the Bronze Age, the Steppe Societies [ca 3500-1200 BC].

Domestication History

Scholars are not completely in agreement that the closest wild garlic to the current domesticated variety is Allium longicuspis; for example, Mathew et al. argue that since A. longiscuspis is sterile, it can't be the wild ancestor, but rather a cultivated plant abandoned by nomads. Mathew and colleagues suggest Allium tuncelianum in southeast Turkey and Allium macrochaetum in southwest Asia are more likely progenitors.

Although there are a few collections near the site of domestication in central Asia and the Caucasus which are seed-fertile, today, garlic cultivars are almost entirely all sterile and have to be propagated by hand. That must be a result of domestication. Other characteristics that appear in domesticated varieties are bulb weight, coat layer, leaf length, growth habit and resistance to environmental stress.

Garlic History

Garlic was likely traded out from central Asia into Mesopotamia where it was cultivated by the beginning of the 4th millennium BC.

The earliest remains of garlic come from the Cave of the Treasure, near Ein Gedi, Israel, ca 4000 BC (Middle Chalcolithic). By the Bronze Age, garlic was being consumed by people throughout the Mediterranean, including the Egyptians under the 3rd dynasty Old Kingdom pharaoh Cheops (~2589-2566 BC).

Excavations at Minos' palace at Knossos on the Mediterranean island of Crete recovered garlic dated between 1700-1400 BC; the New Kingdom Pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb (~1325 BC) contained excellently preserved garlic bulbs.

The remains of a braid of 300 cloves of garlic were found in a room at the Tsoungiza Hill site, on Crete (300 BC); and athletes from Greek Olympians to the Roman gladiators under Nero are reported to have eaten garlic to increase their athletic prowess.

Garlic and Social Classes

It wasn't just Mediterranean people with a jones for garlic; China started using garlic at least as early as 2000 BC; in India garlic seeds have been found at Indus Valley sites such as Farmana dated to the mature Harappan period between 2600-2200 BC. The earliest references in historical documents come from the Avesta, a collection of Zoroastrian holy writings compiled during the 6th century BC.

There are several historical references about what "class of person" used the strong smelling and tasting flavors of garlic and why, and in most of the ancient societies where garlic was used, it was primarily a medicinal panacea and a spice eaten only by the working classes at least as long ago as Bronze Age Egypt.

Chinese and Indian medicinal treatises recommend garlic to aid respiration and digestion, and to treat leprosy and parasitic infestation. The 14th century Muslim physician Avicenna recommended garlic as useful for toothache, chronic cough, constipation, parasites, snake and insect bites, and gynecological diseases.

The first documented use of garlic as a magic talisman comes from medieval period Europe where the spice had magical significance, and was used to protect humans and animals against witchcraft, vampires, devils and disease. Sailors took them as talismans to keep them safe on long sea voyages.

The Exorbitant Cost of Egyptian Garlic?

There is a rumor reported in several popular articles and repeated in numerous places on the Internet that says that garlic and onions were extremely expensive spices that were bought explicitly for the workers building the Egyptian pyramid of Cheops at Giza. The roots of this story seem to be a misunderstanding of the Greek historian Herodotus.

When he visited Cheops' Great Pyramid, Herodotus (484–425 BC) said he was was told that an inscription on the pyramid said that the Pharaoh had spent a fortune (1600 silver talents!) on garlic, radishes and onions "for the workers".

One possible explanation for this is that Herodotus heard it wrong, and the pyramid inscription referred to a type of arsenate stone which smells of garlic when burned.

Building stones that have an odor like that of garlic and onions are described on the Famine Stele. The Famine Stele is a Ptolemaic period stele carved about 2,000 years ago, but is thought to be based on a much-older manuscript. This stone's carvings are part of the cult of the Old Kingdom architect Imhotep, who knew a thing or two about which kind of rocks would be best to use to build a pyramid. This theory is that Herodotus was not told about "the cost of garlic" but rather "the cost of stones that smell like garlic".

I think we can forgive Herodotus, don't you?

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Plant Domestication, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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