The paleolithic age or “old stone age,” as it was called by the Greeks, ended about 10,000 years ago. Up until that time humans were mainly hunter gatherers, and there was no significant farming or agriculture to sustain life. Some time after that, during the neolithic or “new stone age,” humans learned to cultivate crops, and wild grains were harvested and eaten. The hunter gatherers made tools generally out of stone, controlled fire and probably developed some language skills. But, if hunters were too numerous, there might not be enough food or game for everyone.

Eventually wild grasses and later wheat were harvested and then made into bread; therefore, communities developed around crops that could help feed the citizens and less hunting was necessary. Farmers tended to have larger families than hunters and permanent buildings were built to house these families. The population grew at an “unprecedented rate,”and these early societies at least those in the middle east were based on wheat and barley.

Now about 10,000 years later, we find that some of the descendents of these early wheat-growing communities are unable to eat wheat and may have rather serious gastrointestinal reactions to the ingestion of wheat. Gluten is a protein in wheat, and it may cause an autoimmune-like reaction in the gastrointestinal tract called celiac disease. The symptoms may include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation and possibly malabsorption of nutrients and vitamins and therefore anemia. The only treatment is a gluten-free diet, which is difficult because gluten is added to many prepackaged foods.

Some present-day nutrition experts say that humans may not have the genetic makeup needed to ingest grains, such as wheat or gluten and that we should avoid these crops. We can assume, therefore, that gluten intolerance is a disease that is only about 10,000 years old. But also assume that the development of agriculture played a significant role in the growth of communities, language skills, civilizations and commerce. The Fertile Crescent, also known as the Cradle of Civilization, is the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present day Iraq.

So, even if you are intolerant of wheat and gluten, the words “bread of life” are indeed a metaphor that requires some thought and appreciation.

DavidKeisler is a gastroenterologist and internist in Aiken.