The name of the ancient grain “einkorn” (Latin: Triticum monococcum) is derived from the fact that each of the plant’s spikelets only contains one grain. On the short, flat ear single grains sit in pairs opposite each other. In some countries, einkorn is translated as “little spelt”; in other countries, einkorn has its own name, such as “alakor” in Hungary or “limetz” in Bulgaria.
Human beings started cultivating einkorn as far back as in the Neolithic period – i.e. around 7500 BC. The domestication of the primeval wheat species, which had previously probably been gathered in the wild, began in what is today Turkey and the Middle East. From there, the grain spread to Europe and became an integral part of Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures. Remains of bread made from einkorn were found in the stomach of “Ötzi” (a man who died in the high Alps of South Tyrol in around 3300 BC and was mummified by the ice). Over time, higher-yielding grains, such as emmer, barley, spelt and wheat, took the place of einkorn. Until the 20th century, this ancient grain was only grown very locally in a few regions in Europe as a traditional food, for cattle feed or for its long, thin straw.
Just like modern common wheat (Triticum aestivum), einkorn belongs to the “Triticum” genus – but it is not the direct “grandfather of modern wheat”. Rather, the common wheat we have today is a result of crossing various Triticum species and wild grasses. The differences between einkorn and other representatives of the “wheat” genus become clear when you look at their genetic make-up.
Einkorn is diploid (14 chromosomes) and only equipped with the A genome, its simple genetics clearly distinguish it from developmentally younger wheat species: emmer is tetraploid (28 chromosomes) and has a BA genome. The hexaploid spelt and wheat species are genetically very similar (B, A and D genome, 42 chromosomes). Moreover, in recent decades our “modern” common wheat has also been intensively bred into high-performance varieties. These hybridisations of common wheat aimed to increase crop yields and improve baking properties, i.e. to increase protein and gluten content.