Nutsedge – perhaps the oldest managed ‘weed’ in Predynastic Egypt

Nutsedge is one of the oldest plants found in Egyptian predynastic sites that was used for food.  Its tubers continued to be used in historical times in Egypt, both as food, as well as in medications.

Eric Danell has this to say about the plant:

The spikelets of Purple nutsedge (Cyperus rotundus, Cyperaceae) carry the flowers. The ‘hairs’ are the male anthers. It is one of the most advanced land plants on Earth, being independent of insects for its pollination (it uses the wind) and independent of fungi for its mineral uptake (no mycorrhiza). A medicinal plant to some, a cheap substitute for grass to others, or the world’s most serious weed? It is all in the eye of the beholder.

History

The use of yellow nutsedge has its origins in ancient Egypt. Chufa was one the first domesticated crops, having been found in vases in the tombs of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Chufa was widely used in Egypt and Sudan. Its dry tubers have been found in tombs from pre-dynastic times (4000 B.C.).

The Arabs introduced the plant to Spain during the time of the Moorish kings (up to 1200 A.D.). The Eastern Spanish province of Valencia was the best for growing chufa. There are written records from the 13th century which mention the consumption of drink made from chufa (a predecessor to the horchata drink) in the region of Valencia.

Whether it was ‘domesticated,’ or remained wild and was collected on a seasonal basis, is open to debate. I remember an article on its use in predynastic Egypt published a few years ago, which I’ve been unable to relocate on the web, but have included several other references.

Papyrus Ebers Treatment of a Cold:

One of the ingredients given in the  Ebers Papyrus for treating the common cold is purple nutsedge (below, an example of one of the pages from the Ebers Papyrus in hieratic, followed by hieroglyphs, and then translated):

Page of the Ebers Papyrus, in original hieratic. Tafel 096 - kolumne xcvi

Recipe for curing a cold, in the Ebers Papyrus. Source: imakalya.com

Another [medicine for curing a cold]:
1/64  frankincense
1/16  juniper berries
1/16  Lower Egyptian jbw-plant, (an unidentified plant)
1/16  jbxj-liquid, (an unspecified liquid)
1/16  celery of the desert
1/16  celery of the North
1/16  pSnt-Mineral, (mineral not specifically designated)
1/16 tjam-plant, (an unidentified plant)
1/16  Rush
1/16 xbw-plant, (an unidentified plant)
1/16  Swt-Nmtj-plant, (creeping cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans)? Beard grass?)
1/32  white six-row barley
1/16  six-row barley green
5 ro  conifer turpentine
1/16 gyt plant (a plant – the same as gjw – purple nutsedge)
5 ro  psD (an unspecified fruit)-mineral
1/16  rwD mineral (a not-designated mineral)
1/8    xt-ds-plant (Myrtle (Myrtus communis)?
1/32  Honey
Dress or bandage with it

A recent study comparing food in two of the major predynastic sites of the Nile valley – Hierakonpolis and Naqada –  has this to say:

Three questions are addressed in this study: Diet and Dental Health in Predynastic Egypt – A Comparison of Hierakonpolis and Naqada

(1) Which of the available flora and fauna were being eaten? While specific food could not be identified individually, cultivated items such as bread and raw vegetables were consumed by all individuals at Hierakonpolis but mostly women and children at Naqada. At least some meat and/or fish was consumed at both sites.

(2) Were food types found as burial offerings being eaten? Consumption of at least two burial offerings, bread and nutsedge (Hierakonpolis only), are supported.

(3) Were the working class inhabitants of Hierakonpolis and Naqada consuming the same diet? While the major portions of the diet appear to be similar, this study found both dietary and behavioral differences between the working class members of these sites.

Interestingly, nutsedge remains that were used in cooking were found only at Hierakonpolis – and not at Naqada, which is not that distanced from Hierakonpolis:

Major settlements in predynastic and early dynastic Egypt. Source: xoomer-virgilio-it

Yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus), sometimes called Earth almond or Chufa, has tuberous roots that can be eaten raw or cooked. Their sweet, nutty flavor makes them ideal for a multitude of recipes, from soups to sweets.

Cyperus esculentas

Cyperus esculentas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to Cornucopia II: A Sourcebook of Edible Plants, yellow nutsedge was used to add sweetness to ancient Egyptian barley juice, and in Spain, the tubers are added to horchata de chufa, a beverage “prepared by mixing the ground tubers with water, cinnamon, sugar, vanilla and ice.”

And of course, not to forget perhaps the most famous of the sedges – papyrus, from which the Egyptians made paper .  The tubers of papyrus were also eaten from predynastic times – as they were up to current times in some parts of  tropical Africa and all along the White Nile.

For this entry, I’m continuing to look for information such as the following, on sedges used in the Nile valley:

THE DOMESTICATION OF THE BUSH-HARVESTED SEDGE CAUSTIS BLAKEI [Australia]

Domestication is seen as a three-step process of initial biological and ecological studies, an investigation of propagation methods and a selection process either prior to propagation or, if necessary, after propagation has been resolved.

I will be adding more information to this blog.

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About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Egypt-Ancient, Food, Health, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Nile Valley, Recipes and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Nutsedge – perhaps the oldest managed ‘weed’ in Predynastic Egypt

  1. Pingback: Nutsedge | The Great Full Garden

  2. Pingback: Forest Garden Tiger Nuts and Horchata in Barcelona | Kitchen Counter Culture

  3. I am so excited to have found your fascinating blog and can’t wait for the time to really explore it. In the meantime, I wish I’d known of this piece when I wrote about nutsedges/ tiger nuts as a kind of “Forest Garden” / Permaculture plant possible to grow in the UK. Here’s the link. I’ll write an update linking this piece http://kitchencounterculture121.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/tigernuts/

    Liked by 1 person

    • dianabuja says:

      Thanks, and I do have a great interest in the context – especially the historical context of food and cuisine, and how it changes over time and across space.

      Like

  4. Pingback: nsf.gov – National Science Foundation (NSF) News – A Grassy Trend in Human Ancestors’ Diets – US National Science Foundation (NSF) | DIANABUJA'S BLOG: Africa, the Middle East, Agriculture, History & Culture

  5. wartica says:

    Thanks for sharing about nutsedge; never knew too much about it before –until now! Great post and I look forward to sharing more with you:)

    Like

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