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 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 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 Kyrgyzstan, and those mountains were home to the great horseback traders of the Bronze Age, the Steppe Societies, ca 3500–1200 BCE.

Key Takeaways: Garlic Domestication

  • Scientific Name: Allium sativum L.
  • Common Name: Garlic
  • Progenitor: Possibly extinct, or derived from A. longicuspis, A. tuncelianum, or A. macrochaetum
  • Place of Origin: Central Asia
  • Date of Domestication: ca. 4,000–3,000 BCE
  • Characteristics: Bulb size and weight, cannot reproduce itself

Domestication History

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

Although there are a few collections in the region of where it was domesticated in Central Asia and the Caucasus which are seed-fertile, today's 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 increased bulb weight, thinner coat layer, reduced leaf length, shorter growing seasons, 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 BCE (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 BCE).

Giza Pyramids and Sphinx in Cairo, Egypt
Giza Pyramids and Sphinx in Cairo, Egypt.  fmajor / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Excavations at Minos' palace at Knossos on the Mediterranean island of Crete recovered garlic dated between 1700–1400 BCE; the New Kingdom Pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb (~1325 BCE) 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 BCE); and athletes from Greek Olympians to the Roman gladiators under Nero are reported to have eaten garlic to increase their athletic prowess.

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 The earliest references in historical documents come from the Avesta, a collection of Zoroastrian holy writings compiled during the 6th century BCE.

Garlic and Social Classes

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 cure-all and a spice eaten only by the working classes at least as long ago as Bronze Age Egypt.

Ancient Chinese and Indian medical treatises recommend eating 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 a 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.

19th Century Sculpture of Herodotus
Sculpture of Herodotus in classical Greek style on the exterior of the Austrian parliament building, completed in 1883 by the architect Theophil Hansen (1813–1891). LordRunar / iStock / Getty Images Plus

When he visited Cheops' Great Pyramid, Herodotus (484–425 BCE) said he was was told that an inscription on the pyramid said that the Pharaoh had spent a fortune (1,600 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."

It may also be that this story "smells like garlic," as well: others have claimed the story is fiction, others that Herodotus's dragoman made the story up on the spot.

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