Saturday 4 August 2018


How did the Mesolithic hunter gatherers get the idea to start eating wild grains? Well my guess was that year after year they watched herds of deer and wild donkeys gorge themselves on ripe emmer wheat or einkorn wheat, both of which grow wild in huge quantities in Middle East. 

But it turns out these wild grains have developed sharp inedible husks and awns (long bristle) to protect their seeds from being eaten by grazing animals which basically avoided the ripe wild grasses. So the idea to start collecting and eating the wild grain seeds must have come to our ancestors in some other way. But once someone did get the idea to start collecting wild grain seeds they ended up with this:

Now luckily the Mesolithic people from Middle East already had all the tools and technique to convert the hard, basically inedible and indigestible seeds into food. This is because for a long time before they tried to eat grain, they have been collecting, processing, cooking and eating acorns. You can read more about human consumption of acorns in this series of posts on my blog

One thing that the Mesolithic people didn't have is the way to efficiently collect the wild wheat seeds. Basically they were yet to invent tools for harvesting: sickle. Sickle is a curved blade with a cutting (normally serrated) edge on the inside of the curve. 

So what did our Mesolithic grain gatherers do? Well the most logical thing. They looked at the deer and donkeys grazing on wild grasses and thought: "Their teeth are doing pretty good job cutting through the grass stems. If we kill a deer or a donkey and get its jaw bone (mandible) with all its teeth still in place, we can use it to cut through grain stems as well as deer and donkeys can..."

And they did just that. They started using deer and donkey mandibles to harvest grain. 

Now, just to clarify that I didn't just dream up the possibility that deer mandibles were used as the first sickles myself. Have a look at this. 

This is a deer jaw sickle from USA. Bone sickles for cutting grass, made from the lower jaw of deer, are found most commonly in central and western Oklahoma. Only one side of the jaw was used and this was lashed onto a wooden handle for service as a grass cutting tool. Actual examples of mounted specimens have been recovered intact from dry caves or rock shelters in the Ozarks area of Arkansas. 

Here is one mounted on a handle:

Article that talks about these jaw sickles can be found here: "The Identification of a Prehistoric Bone Tool from the Midwest: The Deer-Jaw Sickle" by James A. Brown 

Wild grains are kind of grass, right?

Deer mandibles were found in the oldest grain farmer's temple in Europe located in Starčevo culture Blagotin settlement, Serbia and dated to the 7th millennium BC. 

In Blagotin we find several overlapping phases of the settlement development. The earliest feature of the site is a 2,5 meter deep sacrificial pit, around which the temple was later built. At the bottom of the pit archaeologists have found a ritually broken deer scull with separated mandibles positioned at a certain angle. 

Why deer mandibles?

Official theory is that "this seems to connect the Starčevo culture to the much older Paleolithic deer cultures of Europe from the time before the last Ice Age. This makes Starčevo culture a link between the Paleolithic Mesolithic Hunter gatherer cultures and Neolithic agrarian cultures". 

But is it possible that the reason why deer mandibles were placed at the bottom of the sacrificial pit was because it was deer which lead hunter gatherers to the wild grain in the first place. And because it was deer mandibles which were used as the first sickles for harvesting first wild and later domesticated grain. 

So deer mandibles at the bottom of the sacrificial pit at the centre of the grain farmer's temple suddenly makes a lot of sense. 

This also explains why deer is found as a symbol in many agrarian cultures. 

Now people using deer mandibles as sickles quickly realised that they are in fact not very good cutting implements. Teeth are not very sharp to start with compared with flint blades and they can't be sharpened. Once they get blunt you have to throw the whole mandible away and go kill another deer or donkey to get a new jaw. So one day someone smart looked at his flint blade and his mandible sickle and thought: "if only I could stick this flint blade into the jaw bone instead of the stupid teeth". Well whoever that person was he did exactly that, and the next incarnation of a sickle was born: deer or donkey mandible with real teeth being replaced with sharp stone "teeth" micro blades.

This type of sickle quickly proved to be much much better than the original "o'naturel" one. Stone teeth were much sharper and when they got blunt, all you needed to do was replace them with newly chipped sharp ones. No need to go hunting for deer or donkeys every time you need to sharpen your sickle. 

But soon more and more people wanted sickles and for each new sickle (actually for each two new sickles) someone had to go and find and kill a deer or a donkey, get the mandibles....Boring...

So someone smart (again) thought: "If I get a piece of wood which is roughly shaped like a deer or donkey mandible and I stick stone micro blades into it I get a sickle. No need to go hunting for deer or donkeys. I can make ten of these a day." And this is exactly what he did and the next incarnation of a sickle was born: wooden "mandible" with stone "teeth" micro blades. 

Here is a neolithic example:

And here is an Ancient Egyptian example:

Some smart people then thought: "Why do we have to bother with this wooden bit? Why don't we just make the whole bloody thing out of one single piece of stone"? And so they did. And the third incarnation of a sickle was born, a "mandible with teeth" made of single piece of sharpened stone. Like this Bronze Age Sumerian one:

In Iran they even made them from fired clay. This is a clay sickle (A33006) from the site of Chogha Mish in Iran, ca. 3400–3100 BC, currently kept in the Oriental Institute in Chicago. Such clay sickles were widespread in use at the site and have a sharp cutting edge. The edge of this sickle is actually still quite sharp!

As metallurgy developed, sickles started being made of bronze. The "stone mandible with teeth" was replaced with "bronze mandible with (or without) teeth". 

Like this Middle Bronze Age sickle dated to 15th-12th century BC from Europe.

Or this Early Iron Age sickle dated to 7th-6th century BC from Europe. No this sickle is not shaped like a bird. It is shaped like a mandible...

Finally we arrive to the sickles made from iron, like this Roman sickle.

Which is basically the same familiar sickle we all know

Now the word "sickle" comes from Middle English "sikel", from Old English "sicol, siċel", from Proto-Germanic "*sikilō" (ploughshare), of uncertain origin. Possibly a borrowing from Latin "sēcula" (sickle) or, alternatively derived as a diminutive of Proto-Germanic "*seką" (ploughshare), from Proto-Indo-European "*seg-", a variant of Proto-Indo-European "*sek-" (to cut). 

The root "s(e)k" is I believe onomatopoeic. This is the sound which a blade makes when pulled across something in order to cut it. The sound you hear is: “sssssssk”. 

Here you can hear sounds of flesh being cut with a blade. When you cut something off with a sudden hit of blade sound shortens to "tsk" or "tsak". Here you can hear sounds of chopping with a blade. 

What is really interesting is that in Celtic and South Slavic languages the words which are derived from the "s(e)k" basically describe making of a stone blade from a stone and then using of this stone blade. You get a shingly stone, slate, or some other stone that can be split and chipped, like flint, you chip it, split it until you get a sharp blade. Husks and chips fall off in the process. Then you can use it to cut, split and sever…

Here is the Irish example cluster:

Scaineamh– shingly
Sclata– slate
Scaineadh-crack, split

Scoilt  split, crack, cleavage, fissure, parting
Sceallog – chip, thin slice
Scealla – shale, flake
Scablail – chisel work
Scaid – husks
Scaineach – thin, cracked
Scean,scian (pronounced shkian) – knife
Scean – crack, split, sever
Scailp  chasm or a cleft 

Here is the corresponding south Slavic word cluster. You will notice that it is a lot bigger and wider than the Irish one, but it covers the same word range needed to describe making of a stone blade from as tone as well as all the metal blades and their usage. 

Školjka – shell. Shells are sharp and could have been what gave people idea to create first blades
Skriljac – slate. This stone can be easily chipped and was used for weapon blades. 
Skalja – small thin chips of stone or wood
Sek(sometimes pronounced as sik or sk)– root word meaning to cut but also a blade. Word "seći" (to cut) comes from sekti.
Sečivo (pronounced sechivo) – blade which probably comes from sekivo.
Sekira (sikira, skira) – axe
Sekare (škare pronounces shkare) – scissors
Sekia (sekian) – knife. This word is now preserved in Bosnian slang word for knife “ćakija” (sekia). This word can also be deduced from a word škia (pronounced shkia) which is a dinaric dialect word which means a thin hand sliced tobacco. 
Sekač – a one sided blade
Škiljiti – to squint, to make your eyes look like as if they were two cuts.
Skija – a blade on a sled, and later a ski. 
Sekutić – front tooth
Usek,zasek – cut, groove
Sek – log house where logs, which are also called sek, are connected by interlocking cuts made at their ends.
Seknuti – to strike or hit suddenly
Škljocati - to make a noise by closing something sharp like teeth or scissors.
Škrgutati – to grind teeth
Škopiti – to castrate, to cut balls off.
Skulj – a castrated ram
Škrip – a cut, a narrow space

I wonder if other Indoeuropean languages have the same or similar clusters?

How old is this word root? I believe that it comes at least from Neolithic if not from Mesolithic. And I think that we have a proof for this. 

Sumerian language is said to be language isolate, not related to any living language of today. 

In Sumerian dictionary we find these words:

"sag̃a, sag̃, sig̃" - to cut, break, harvest, to make harvesting motion

Now in the dictionary you can read that the sign "g̃" was pronounced as "ng"? But is it possible that in the case of this word the sound was "g" and not "ng"? After all we don't really know how the Sumerian language sounded like. Everything we have is a reconstruction...

And if this word was pronounced ad "sag", "sig" this sounds very very similar to "seg, sek" the Indoeuropean root meaning "to cut". 

Is it possible that here we have pure Indoeuropean word borrowed into the Sumerian language? Or was this a Sumerian word borrowed in Indoeuropean languages? Or is this word even older and comes from the time when the first Mesolithic people in Middle East started using deer and donkey mandibles to harvest grains? And was the word therefore borrowed from that old language into both Sumerian and PIE? I am not sure. 

What is even more interesting is that in Sumerian dictionary we also find these words:

"zú, zu" - tooth, teeth; prong; thorn; blade; ivory; flint, chert; obsidian; natural glass.

"zubu, zubi" - sickle (zú, 'flint; tooth', + bu[r], 'to pull, draw, cut off') 

Remember that the first sickle was basically a deer or donkey mandible (jaw bone with teeth)? And that ever since sickles were basically more and more efficient imitations of jaw bones with teeth?

This Sumerian word literally describes a sickle as "teeth used for cutting". Mad or what?

But it gets even better. In Slavic languages the word for tooth is "zub" and for teeth is "zubi". These words have the same root as the Sumerian word for tooth "zu". And even better Slavic plural teeth "zubi" is the same as Sumerian "zubi" sickle. Sickle literally, as we can see from the above picture, being "teeth" used for cutting wheat...

Now of course the Slavic "zub" (tooth) comes from Proto-Slavic "zǫbъ" (tooth) apparently from Proto-Balto-Slavic "*źambas", from Proto-Indo-European "*ǵómbʰos" (tooth, teeth, peg).

Baltic cognates include Lithuanian "žam̃bas" (sharp edge) and Latvian "zobs" (tooth).

Indo-European cognates include Ancient Greek γόμφος gómphos (peg) and γομφίος gomfíos (tooth), Sanskrit जम्भ jámbha (tooth, tusk, swallowing) and Proto-Germanic *kambaz (comb).

Here I need to ask a question: How is it possible that Slavic (and Baltic) word for tooth has the same root as Sumerian word for tooth starting with "z", while all the other Indoeuropean words for tooth have the root starting with "k,g,j" and the root of the whole cluster starts with "g"? 
Is it the case that this was originally PIE root starting with "k,g,j". And that it was somehow later changed by both Slavic and Sumerian languages, to start with "z"? 
Or is it that the original root, which was much older than both Sumerian and PIE originally started with "z". And that this root was preserved in Slavic and Sumerian languages, while it got corrupted in other Indoeuropean languages where it was changed to start with "k,g,j"? 
I believe that the second explanation is probably closer to the truth. After all the sound you make when you vocalise while showing your teeth is "zzzzz" from which the words for tooth "zu" (Sumerian) and "zub" (Slavic) come from.  Logical right? What are we gonna call that thing you are showing? I suggest something that starts with "ZZZZ", the sound I can make while showing that thing...

Now this is not the only example of such common old word, whose root "z", is found in Sumerian and Slavic languages but was corrupted into "g,k,j" in other Indoeuropean languages. And believe or not these other words are the words for "grain", "life", "breath" all logically related to teeth. 

In Sumerian language we find this word:

"zi" (ži?) - breathing, breath (of life), life, throat, soul...
"zi(d)" "še" - flour, meal
"zíz" - emmer (wheat)
"še" - barley, grain

In Slavic languages the word for "life" is "život". This word comes from the root "živ" which means "alive".

"živ" - alive
"život" - life, stomach
"zev" - yawn (possibly related as yawning is breathing so it could be a remnant of the old meaning zi - breath)
"žir" - acorn (the original first starch food which predates grain. You can read more about human consumption of acorns through history in these posts). In the Balkans the word žir in the past actually meant all plant food. In Eastern Slavic languages, the word for acorn is "želud" which is interesting because in Serbian the word for stomach is "želudac". This word also has the same root as žir.
"žito" - grain

In all the other Indoeuropean languages these words, if they even exist, start with "g,k,j"...

You can read about this in more detail in my post "Breath". 

So in Sumerian and Slavic languages, the word for breath of life, life force, life, grain and acorns (two main staple foods of our ancestors which sustain life), the teeth which are used to eat food, but also to cut wheat all have the same root: "z". 

How is this possible? And why is this not recognised, talked about?

O and one more thing, while we are talking about common wheat related words in Sumerian and Slavic languages. 

In my post "Crop devouring insect" A weevil, a type of beetle which can damage and kill crops, particularly grains and devastate granaries causing famine, has the same name in South Slavic languages and Sumerian...

What do you think about all this?


  1. I love this blog - thank you for all the word connections. Sumerian to Slavic - wow.

  2. Nice analysis. Wild grain eating in the Paleolithic was probably limited to small group meals, a handful of straws cut with a blade and toasted over a campfire (like a marshmallow) to burn the chaff and cook the seeds was enough, but the Mesolithic had larger groups which needed mass quantities of food and stores to support more complex social hierarchies and their specialized functions. My explorations into paleo-etymology produced a term '*xyuambua' meaning sift/sieve/comb that seems very close to your comparatives for teethrow/sickle, it could be pronounced with initial z sound.
    Ancient Egyptian Sun God Seker was associated with threshing.
    "Now in the dictionary you can read that the sign "g̃" was pronounced as "ng"?" I agree with you on that, it didn't have the modern English sound of -ng.

    At an archaeological site in northeastern Jordan, researchers have discovered the charred remains of a flatbread baked by hunter-gatherers 14,400 years ago. It is the oldest direct evidence of bread found to date, predating the advent of agriculture by at least 4,000 years. The findings suggest that bread production based on wild cereals may have encouraged hunter-gatherers to cultivate cereals, and thus contributed to the agricultural revolution in the Neolithic period.
    > Read more at:

    Our results, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also allowed us to reconstruct the ingredients that went into this hunter-gatherer bread. The bread makers used flour ground from wild barley, einkorn, and oat. But we also found an unexpected type of plant: tubers. Club-rush tubers, an aquatic plant of the family of papyrus (Cyperaceae), was frequently present in the archaeobotanical assemblage from Shubayqa 1. These tubers were ground into flour, mixed with cereal flour, and likely baked on a hot stone to produce a flatbread product. The hunter-gatherer bread from Jordan was a multigrain and tuber bread—not necessarily what you might expect purely in terms of maximizing calories for the labor involved. (The plant remains in the fireplace also contained a surprisingly wide variety: from tubers to grasses, seeds, and fruit.)

  3. Feeding the Living, Feeding the Dead
    Natufian Food Production Societies in the Southern Levant (15,000–11,500 cl BP)

    David Eitam
    Independent researcher, Hararit, 20182 Israel,

    Natufian, conical mortar, cereal food, mortuary ritual, early agriculture

    1. Introduction
    Sickle blade, used for harvest cereals and narrow conical mortar (NCM), used for peel and mill cereal into flour, are the two most important tools introduced by the Natufian people. These two hallmarks of the Natufian culture manifest systematic and quantitative cereal-food production during the Late Epipaleolithic. Numerous of NCMs (270) carved in stone were discovered in 25 South-Levantine Natufian sites, always in domestic context, The were cut in bedrock and less frequently carved in stone blocs or shaped as vessels (Eitam 2009a, 2009b, 2013; Goring Morris; Henry; Marx…; Wright 1992a). On the other hand, only few of the NCM were found in ritual contexts, among them eight in Nahal Oren cemetery (Stekelis and Yizraeli 1963). These ritual NCMs were cut into massive boulder weighting up to 100 kg (Fig. 1:2-4) and had perforated base. The study of the conical mortars and other Natufian stone tools – devices carved in rock as well as ground stone tools– reveal a sophisticate agro-technological system, includes threshing floor, hummeling and grinding devices, for processing cereals-food. The NCM was a central component in this system, exclusively designed for dehusk and mill barley grains into fine flour (Eitam 2013; Eitam et al. 2015). Wild barely was and still is the most widespread cereal in the Southern Levant (Kislev; Zohary and Weiss….) and therefore was the main sauces of the Natufians plant food. The exceptional NCM found in Natufian graves, reveal a very early (possibly the first) symbolic feeding of the dead, and strengthen my suggestion that cereal-food and bread were a central part of the Natufian diet and subsistence. This significant shift from foraging to food production is not defined here as part of agriculture, as no clear evidence of cultivated nor domesticated plants revealed during the Late Epipaleolithic . This article analyst the daily and ritual uses of the NCM and reviews the socio-economy and cultural aspects of the Natufian culture, facing the new data.

    see more of the same in RechearGate

  4. "živ" - alive" - pol. żyw
    ""život" - life, stomach" - pol.żywot
    ""zev" - yawn (possibly related as yawning is breathing so it could be a remnant of the old meaning zi - breath)" - pol. ziew
    "In the Balkans the word žir in the past actually meant all plant food." - it can be related to pol.żer
    "In Eastern Slavic languages, the word for acorn is "želud" which is interesting because in Serbian the word for stomach is "želudac"".
    "želud" , pol. żołędź
    "želudac" , pol. żołądek
    "žito" - grain, pol. żyto

    "zub" - pol. ząb
    and for teeth is "zubi" - pol. zęby

  5. żołądź of course, plural: żołędzie ;)

  6. Bread maker here loved the journey--thanks!

  7. "žito" - grain, pol. żyto

    When I saw the handle-hafted deer jaw, I thought it was a golf putter. Was it the first inanimate lawn mower?

  8. the concept - žito - grain, that was used in the article (I think) may refer to grain in general,
    but the word "žito" (in polish) most corresponds to the word "żyto" (rye)
    for grain in general in polish we used word "zboże"

  9. also the word "žir" may have an equivalent in the Polish word "żer" - feed, but not directly, wild boars grazed on acorns , acorns also served as pig feed
    hence the word "żer" refers to animals
    closely related to this word is the verb "żreć" , "vulgarly" eat, and its derivative forms: zeżreć, pożreć