An Update, Barely, on Barley

A Dec. 23, 2019 news release from Washington University in St. Louis reports new research results about the “lost crops” of North America that could have been more productive than maize for feeding people. This tentative finding is based on experimental cultivation of some of some crops for which ancient agricultural methods have long been lost. It’s a good reminder of how hard it can be to figure out what ancient peoples ate and how they obtained their food.

Writing in the Journal of Ethnobiology, Natalie Muellert, assistant professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences, describes how she painstakingly grew and calculated yield estimates for two annual plants that were cultivated in eastern North America for thousands of years — and then abandoned.

Growing goosefoot (Chenopodium, sp.) and erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum) together is more productive than growing either one alone, Mueller discovered. Planted in tandem, along with the other known lost crops, they could have fed thousands.

Archaeologists found the first evidence of the lost crops in rock shelters in Kentucky and Arkansas in the 1930s. Seed caches and dried leaves were their only clues. Over the past 25 years, pioneering research by Gayle Fritz, professor emerita of archaeology at Washington University, helped to establish the fact that a previously unknown crop complex had supported local societies for millennia before maize — a.k.a. corn — was adopted as a staple crop.

But how, exactly, to grow them?

The lost crops include a small but diverse group of native grasses, seed plants, squashes and sunflowers — of which only the squashes and sunflowers are still cultivated. For the rest, there is plenty of evidence that the lost crops were purposefully tended — not just harvested from free-living stands in the wild — but there are no instructions left.

“There are many Native American practitioners of ethnobotanical knowledge: farmers and people who know about medicinal plants, and people who know about wild foods. Their knowledge is really important,” Mueller said. “But as far as we know, there aren’t any people who hold knowledge about the lost crops and how they were grown.

“It’s possible that there are communities or individuals who have knowledge about these plants, and it just isn’t published or known by the academic community,” she said. “But the way that I look at it, we can’t talk to the people who grew these crops.

“So our group of people who are working with the living plants is trying to participate in the same kind of ecosystem that they participated in — and trying to reconstruct their experience that way.”

For years many have assumed that maize took over as a staple because it was more productive than other plants that once were cultivated, but Natalie Muellert, assistant professor of archaeology, wanted to test that hypothesis by growing and analyzing crops from five different plants. Unfortunately, they were only able to get good yield measurements for two goosefoot and knotweed, but not for maygrass, sumpweed, and little barley.

Wait, little barley? Haven’t certain experts told us that the Book of Mormon fails because barley was unknown in the New World before Columbus? Does this “little barley” plant have any relationship to Old World barley?

Little barley is Hordeum pusillum, a distant relative of Old World barley, Hordeum vulgare, but more closely related to other Hordeum species in the grassy regions of Argentina and Uruguay. But calling it “barley” is not scientifically ridiculous and would be appropriate for Old World immigrants learning encountering this edible plant in the New World. It’s been found in pre-Columbian sites in North America and northern Mexico, as has been known since about 1983 when it was first discovered in Arizona (making this barley update “barely” an update). I’m not aware of it being found in the more humid and hotter regions of Mesoamerica, where it may not grow as well or where I think remains may be less likely to endure and be found centuries later, but imported Old World barley grows in the highland regions of Mesoamerica (e.g., in Guatemala) without any obvious difficulty (see Tyler Livingston, “Another Look at Barley in the Book of Mormon“).

For an interesting report on some of the many seeds found in an ancient Native American site, see Michael T. Dunn and William Green, “Terminal Archaic and Early Woodland Plant Use at the Gast Spring Site (13LA152) Southeast Iowa,” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 23, no. 1 (1998): 45-88. The University of Iowa has a page about little barley finds in archaeological sites in Iowa. Also see Book of Mormon Central‘s article on barley, which cites the valuable work of Dunn and Green a couple of times.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

12 thoughts on “An Update, Barely, on Barley

  1. Jeff, the Book of Mormon says explicitly that, before leaving Jerusalem, Lehi's party "gathered together all manner of seeds of every kind, both of grain of every kind, and also of the seeds of fruit of every kind" (1 Ne 8:1). Later it says that, upon arriving in the New World, the Lehites "began to plant seeds; yea, we did put all our seeds into the earth, which we had brought from the land of Jerusalem. And it came to pass that they did grow exceedingly…" (18:24).

    Old World barley was such a common and important Middle Eastern cultivar that it would almost certainly have been among those seeds collected by Lehi. It would almost certainly have been one of the "grains of every kind" the Nephites brought with them to the New World, not one they found upon arriving. So it seems extremely (dare I say exceedingly?) likely that the only barley with which we have to deal in an apologetic context is Old World barley, not little barley.

    The question is this: Is there evidence of Old World barley cultivation in the New World beginning ca 600 BCE? As far as I can see, the existence of a distantly related New World species such as little barley has zero relevance to that question.

    — OK

  2. Great point.

    Looking at this question, I noticed how the BoM mentions both barley and corn. One of Jeff’s past favorite ideas is that the BoM was written in Early Modern English. Note the etymology of the word “corn” vs how it was used in the BoM:

    “The sense of the Old English word was ‘grain with the seed still in’ (as in barleycorn) rather than a particular plant. Locally understood to denote the leading crop of a district. It has been restricted to the indigenous ‘maize’ in America (c. 1600, originally Indian corn, but the adjective was dropped), usually ‘wheat’ in England, ‘oats’ in Scotland and Ireland, while Korn means ‘rye’ in parts of Germany.”

    “And we began to till the ground, yea, even with all manner of seeds, with seeds of corn, and of wheat, and of barley, and with neas, and with sheum, and with seeds of all manner of fruits; and we did begin to multiply and prosper in the land.”

    “22 And all this he did, for the sole purpose of bringing this people into subjection or into bondage. And behold, we at this time do pay tribute to the king of the Lamanites, to the amount of one half of our corn, and our barley, and even all our grain of every kind, and one half of the increase of our flocks and our herds; and even one half of all we have or possess the king of the Lamanites doth exact of us, or our lives.”

    1. Note also the use of the word grain between the Bible and the BoM. BoM uses it more often and in the collective sense—grain means a collection of a type of seeds. The Bible uses it only in the New Testament in talking about a single seed—as in a grain of sand.

  3. OK – Thanks for not letting Jeff get away with it. Though you addressed him, you were not telling him anything he does not already know. Jeff's only purpose is to create straw grasps to help those you who have already chosen to avoid truth continue to do so.

  4. From what it sounds like, you all would like the Book of Mormon to use the terms Old World Barley, New World Barley, and corns of Maize.

    BTW, Jeff did mention that Old World Barley can be cultivated in Mesoamerica so he is aware also the Lehi's family most like brought Old World Barley with them.


    1. “Jeff did mention that Old World Barley can be cultivated in Mesoamerica so he is aware also the Lehi's family most like brought Old World Barley with them.“

      Problem is there’s no proof that they did.

  5. Steve, my comment was in response to Jeff's rhetorical question, "Haven't certain experts told us that the Book of Mormon fails because barley was unknown in the New World before Columbus?"

    I can't speak for other critics, but my objection has never concerned the absence of some native species of pre-Columbian barley, because I've never read the Book of Mormon as suggesting that barley was found here, rather that is was brought here. The objection centers on the pre-Columbian absence of the particular species Nephi claims he brought from Jerusalem ca. 600 BCE; that objection has nothing whatever to do with any other species. This is not merely a matter of semantics, as you seem to be suggesting.

    It's not decisive evidence, of course, especially now that the Church has backtracked from its earlier grandiose claims of Israelite ancestry for all of Native America. If, as the Church now allows, the Nephites were just a tiny fraction of Native Americans, perhaps their Old World barley disappeared along with their DNA.

    That doesn't account for the donkey and the horse, the cow and the ox, but still.

    — OK


    Today too many people are idiots and think they know everything about everything.

    And this includes those who constantly attack the Mormon doctrine with their lies and includes the stupid arrogant Mormon so called scholars and their lying blogs.

  7. OK, good point. However, it is common for immigrants to new lands to bring crops from their homeland, only to find that they don't grow well or flourish as well as local crops — they may lack resistance to local pests and diseases, may require different soil and nutrients, and may not be suited for the different insects, nematodes, etc., of the new land. So certainly the Nephites began with sees they brought along, and they may have used them for a while or for their entire existence as a civilization, we don't know. But it's possible the new crops did not fare well or that there was little demand for them in light of better local alternatives. But barley is certainly a grain the Nephites likely brought with them. It originally was native to the Near East and was a vital crop there in Lehi's day.

    There is also a tradition of barley being raised as an important crop going back 3000 years in Oman, the region hosting the ancient site of Bountiful and the last stop before sailing to the New World. Perhaps some of the grains Lehi brought came from Oman, where there are unique and ancient landraces or cultivars of barley that fare well in the soil with relatively higher salinity there and the relatively dry climate. See Abdullah Jaradat, Mohammad Shahid, Mohammad Shahida, and A. Al-Maskri, "Genetic Diversity in the Batini Barley Landrace from Oman," Crop Science, 44/3 (Jan. 2004): 997–1007; DOI: 10.2135/cropsci2004.0997. Also see A. Al-Maskri et al., "A note about Triticum in Oman," Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, 50/1 (Feb. 2003):83-87; DOI: 10.1023/A:1022986113736.

    So while the Book of Mormon doesn't say barley was among the grains Nephi brought, it's highly likely that it was. When barley is first mentioned in the Book of Mormon, it is in the Book of Mosiah, nearly 500 years after Nephi arrived. Interestingly, that mention is in Mosiah 7:22, followed by Mosiah 9:9, in an account of some Nephites who returned to the city of Nephi to recolonize their ancestral home. If this region is in the Guatemalan highlands, as is often proposed, it's interesting that Old World barley does grow there, and perhaps the barley mentioned in the book of Mosiah was descended from the seeds Nephi brought 500 years earlier. Or perhaps by now it was a more successful local seed that was viewed as given the name "barley" in the record. You ask a good question, and yes, it is possible that this barley was Old World barley, making the existence of "little barley" as a common Native American crop irrelevant to the book of Mosiah. But we don't know that. What the Nephites called "barley" in 121 B.C. may have been Old World barley, some native form of barley like little barley, or an entirely different grain like amaranth or quinoa that was viewed as a replacement for stressed Old World barley and took its place both in diet and name.

    The claim made by critics for years is that barley was unknown in the ancient Americas. The existence of little barley not just as a relative of barley but a major crop in some parts of ancient America is still noteworthy as evidence against an overstated claime often made. But it is not evidence for any Old World barley that the Nephites most likely brought with them.

    When "barley" is first mentioned in the

  8. Jeff, you write that "The claim made by critics for years is that barley was unknown in the ancient Americas." But has that claim actually been made? Or was "the claim made by critics" the claim that Old World barley of the sort the Nephites would have brought with them was unknown in ancient America?

    We all know that the easiest claim to shoot down is one you've made up yourself. Straw men burn so easily! So obviously it would help here if you would actually quote and source an actual claim made by some serious critic. Alas, you do not. To remedy this deficiency in your post, I went in search of such a quote myself. Over at FairMormon I found this: "It has been claimed that barley was unknown in the ancient New World. One author insists that, 'barley never grew in the New World before the white man brought it here!' [Scott, 82]."

    Excellent, I thought! Now I have something I can work with! But alas, when I scrolled down the FairMormon page to get the bibliographic info on this source, I found … nothing. (Check it out yourself here.

    Well, thought I, perhaps the original of this "Scott" statement is to be found in the other source mentioned on the FairMormon page, Sorenson and Smith's "Barley in Ancient America." FairMormon even provided a link. How convenient, I thought to myself. I should easily be able to determine from the original context whether this claim used the word "barley" to refer to Old World barley specifically or just any old barley at all. But once again, alas! FairMormon's linked page fails to load. And no, I'm not going to go to the trouble of getting this work via interlibrary loan (much less purchase it). I've been disappointed so many times I'm not going to bother. Apologists have that little credibility.

    Anyway, what I find really interesting here is the way the FairMormon pages I checked don't bother to discuss the difference between the Old World barley the Nephites might have imported, and the New World species they might have grown. I found no discussion of why that distinction would even matter, even though it is pretty obviously central to evaluating the claims under discussion here. Such a strange omission. (Perhaps FairMormon sees no need to confuse the believers? After all, their goal seems to be not scholarly understanding but simply to send the believer away thinking, Oh, barley existed in the New World, ergo case closed, nothing to see here.)

    It seems to me that any honest and intelligently organized apologetic discussion of barley in the Book of Mormon would begin with this question. Such a discussion would start with the facts as we know them and proceed from there:

    (1) The BoM mentions barley, but…

    (2) … while the BoM says the Nephites imported grains of all kinds, it does not specifically mention barley in this passage.

    (3) Old World barley was an important staple in Lehi's mideastern time and place.

    (4) Evidence of Old World barley in the ancient New World has not been found.

    (5) Native species of barley, genetically and morphologically distinct from the Old World barley, did exist in the ancient New World.

    One obvious question raised by these facts is whether the "barley" mentioned in the BoM is Old World barley or a native species. It could be that —

    (a) Nephi brought Old World barley with him across the seas, and that this is the barley mentioned later on, or

    (b) Nephi did bring Old World barley with him across the seas, but for whatever reason, some of which you mention in your post, the barley mentioned later is native barley, or

    (c) Nephi did not bring Old World barley with him across the seas, and that's why the barley mentioned later is a native species.

    It seems to me that this sort of organization (or something like it) would be most conducive to exploring and understanding the issues involved.

    — OK

  9. Correction: Your reference declares it a "stubborn fact", a circumspect statement from the author that acknowledges it is not entirely unmovable. Furthermore, the author provided a footnote, which too me did not seem necessary.

    The "absurd" commentary by the author was directed at the Nephite system of price controls for all grains, something I have never thought about. How could an author from 100 years ago have such an insightful economic understanding? This Martin Thomas Lamb person must have been divinely inspired.

    Who was worse Jeff, the Gaddianton robbers, are the Nephite Government plundering private property?

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