Sunday, February 11, 2007


My wife likes variety in her breakfast. So we have a box of Kamut Flakes on the kitchen table. The back of the box says, "Cereal of the Pharaohs", and the front,

KAMUT (kah-moot), the "Great Grandfather of Grains".
Derived from the ancient Egyptian word for "Wheat", this high-energy grain was discovered thousands of years ago.
Never mind coordination problems in the telling, there are stories of the origin of the food and its name here.

Kamut® is a trademark for cultivar QK-77 of Khorasan wheat, owned by the Quinn family and their company. It is also a Protected Plant Variety (8900108), which allows control of seed distribution under any name. As its website admits and the Wikipedia page explains, it does not descend from a few grains preserved for millennia in a sealed tomb, but from some relatively isolated Middle Eastern crops that were introduced to the North American plains around WWII.

The major divisions of wheat (Triticum spp.) are:

  • Einkorn (T. monococcum), a diploid species that was cultivated early on.
  • Emmer (T. dicoccon), a cultivated tetraploid species from Wild Emmer (T. dicoccoides), a wild hybrid of two other diploid species.
  • Durum (T. durum), another tetraploid species from Wild Emmer.
  • Spelt (T. spelta), a hexaploid species, hybridized under cultivation from Emmer or Durum and some wild diploid species.
  • Common wheat (T. aestivum), another hexaploid species.

Khorasan wheat is tetraploid like durum and has been variously classified as T. polonicum, T. turgidum, and now T. turanicum. (All these tetraploid species are sometimes considered subspecies of T. turgidum.) Here is a diagram of the genealogy. Looks like it's the Uncle of Grains (on the web, it was "Great-Great Grandfather"). It is also known as Oriental wheat; in Chinese, 杂生小麦 za2 sheng1 xiao3 mai4 'mixed breed wheat'; in Russian, пшеница туранская pshenitsa turanskaia 'Turanian wheat'.

Further color to the story is supplied by the article “Kamut: A New Old Grain” in Gastronomica. This article can be purchased online as a DRM-encumbered PDF for $12. But that is the cover price of the whole magazine. Fortunately, the MIT Press bookstore (at once one of the nerdiest and one of the hippest bookstores in Boston) has just started to stock Gastronomica, including some back issues. (The article incorrectly states that the protection certificate lasts for sixteen years, and so expired in 2006; it lasts for eighteen years until 2008.)

According to the article, Khorsan wheat came to the US in 1949 with an Air Force pilot from Montana. It cites a 1964 Great Falls Tribune article claiming that “King Tut's Wheat” was found by a Montana farmboy in a tomb in Dahshur and miraculously germinated.  The Gastronomica author finds a Harvard paleobotanist to point out that grain does not last for thousands of years. Of course, this is an old story. For example, on Dec. 8, 1930, Time magazine had an article that mentioned seeds taken from the tomb of Tutankhamen when it was opened in 1922 and sent to Alberta in 1926 and just then (1930) harvested into a few bushels of "King Tut Wheat." And so is the debunking. On Dec. 29, Time ran a letter to the editor that prompted someone to ask the NYBG and get an expected grain lifetime of seven years.

I am more curious about the etymology than marketing hyperbole. Older marketing literature claims that it means “Soul of the Earth,” and relatively recent materials for products or from distributors repeat this claim (along with the fanciful timeline). However, the current trademark page comes right out and says that it comes from looking up 'wheat' in Budge's An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary and shows a scanned image of the dictionary entry. Part of the same scan showing the hieroglyphic headword appears elsewhere on the site. The Gastronomica article adds a couple of parenthetical details: this was the only Egyptology book in the Great Falls public library (actually, it's easy to find out that they don't have a copy of that book and that they do have others that are old enough to have been on the stacks in 1987, so perhaps it's some other library) and Budge's 1920 work is no longer considered reliable.

Read More

Dover Publications reprints a number of works of obsolete philology, like Budge and Wieger, cheaply (even more cheaply right now while their bestsellers are on sale) because they are out of copyright. Budge is a problem for real Egyptologists; he was behind the times even in his own day and by now they are likely to dismiss him as worthless. But because these editions are so cost effective and so widespread, everyone with any interest in the area will have encountered them. If one gets more serious, there is some unlearning to be done. I got a copy of Gardiner's Egyptian Grammar right away when I got to college, but maintain an affection for the books I had growing up. Moreover, lots of these Dover works can be studied in their own right for a perspective into the late British Empire. In particular, their recent reprint of The Nile, which Budge did for Thomas Cook so that young ladies traveling to Egypt would have an educated companion, is quite entertaining in that way.

Composing text in any different script used to be a significant undertaking before Unicode, with custom fonts and encodings. But Unicode support for Egyptian hieroglyphs is still working its way through proposals and committees. So putting them in a blog post means using images. But even that has gotten comparatively painless. There are programs to do the composition and rendering starting with Manuel de Codage format, standalone or within PHP; there is even a site to do it all remotely. +s k-A-m-w-t:t-M2:Z2-! gives k-A-m-w-t:t-M2:Z2 and we're in business.

The Budge dictionary entry reads:

kamut k-A-m-w-t:t-M2:Z2, Hh. 457, D28-m-t:Y1-Z3, D28*t:Y1-m-M33:U9, wheat, grain; Heb. קָמַת (?); k-A-Aa15:t-w-N18:Z2-M33\t1-U9:Z2, k-A-Aa15:t-w-N18:Z2, wheaten bread.
The phonetic part is the same; the determinatives are M2 'plant', M33 'grains', U9 'pouring grain', N18 'cake' (in one of its variants).

Hh. stands for Text of Ḥer-ḥetep, Maspero, “Trois Années de Fouilles”, Mémoires de la Mission Archéologique Française au Caire (1884). Unfortunately, this does not seem to have been digitized online yet.

Hebrew קָמַת qamaṯ is 'stalk of grain', for instance in Deuteronomy 23:26 (23:25 in KJV where 23:1 is 22:30):

כִּי תָבֹא בְּכֶרֶם רֵעֶךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ עֲנָבִים כְּנַפְשְׁךָ שָׂבְעֶךָ וְאֶֽל־כֶּלְיְךָ לֹא תִתֵּֽן׃ ס כִּי תָבֹא בְּקָמַת רֵעֶךָ וְקָטַפְתָּ מְלִילֹת בְּיָדֶךָ וְחֶרְמֵשׁ לֹא תָנִיף עַל קָמַת רֵעֶֽךָ׃
kî ṯāḇō’ bəqāmaṯ rē‘eḵā wəqāṭap̱ətā məlîlōṯ bəyāḏeḵā wəḥerəmēš lō’ ṯānîp̱ ‘al qāmaṯ rē‘eḵā
When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbor, then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbor's standing corn.

A more modern transliteration of k-A-m-w-t:t-M2:Z2 is k3mwtt (I am going to follow Allen, but with 3 for aleph, because it renders reasonably in HTML). This word is not in Faulker. But it is online in the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae, which has "Ähre (der Gerste)" and a reference to page 106 of the Wörterbuch der Ägyptischen Sprache, which has "belegt Totb. M.R.; Königsgr. Bez. für Gerste. auch Bier daraus." In other words, while this could be 'grain' generally, it is 'barley' specifically. It is not certain that Khorasan wheat was grown in a place and time where Egyptian was spoken and probably impossible to know what it was called there if so.

קָמַת qamaṯ is from the root קום qwm 'rise'. There is also kA-m-w-M34-O1 k3mw 'vineyard' like כֶּרֶם kerem. The BPL has Etymological Dictionary of Egyptian as published so far, but it's a many volume effort that isn't up to that sound yet. Here is a list of Afro-Asiatic cognates including k3mwtt, such as Pero koomo 'maize' and Nzangi kʷǝmǝ 'corn'.

Budge has a dozen words indexed under 'wheat'. Presumably Quinn picked the one that sounded best for a trademark or maybe just the last one, closest to the index. It is worth having a look at some of these and some related words nearby in the semantic space. The table gives Budge's definition (plus glosses in brackets) and more modern ones, so it also gives a sense of how accurate the old source is in this quite limited area.

i-t:M33ȧtcorn, grist; Copt. ⲉⲓⲱⲧ ['barley'].
jtbarley; corn in general.
b-d:t-M34beṭ-tspelt, millet, dhurra, barley; Copt. ⲃⲱⲧⲉ ['emmer'].
z-w-t:M33su-twheat, corn, grain; Copt. ⲥⲟⲩⲟ ['corn, wheat'].
zwta kind of emmer.
s-w-t:M33su-tcorn, grain, wheat; Copt. ⲥⲟⲩⲟ, ⲥⲟⲩ.
q-m-H-w-X2qemḥubread made with fine flour; compare Heb. קֶמַח [qemah 'flour' e.g. Gen. 18:6], Arab. قَمْح [qamh 'wheat'], Syr. ܩܲܡܚܳܐ [qamhā’ 'flour'], Eth. ቀምሕ፡ [qamḥ 'fruit; leguminous plant'].
qmḥwa kind of bread.
x:n:d-U10khenṭwheat; Heb. חִטָּה [ḥiṭṭāh 'wheat' e.g. Deut. 8:8], Targ. חִנְטָא [ḥinətā’], Arab. حِنْطَة [ḥinṭa 'wheat'].
ḫndkind of cereal? millet? This article also seems to mention this, but I don't have access to a copy.

Returning to k-A-m-w-t:t-M2:Z2 k3mwtt, as the newer dictionary entries indicate, the word is used in the Book of the Dead and royal tombs. In particular, in the Amduat, a story of the journey of the sun god through the twelve hours of the netherworld. Here again, there is a modern synoptic edition, Texte zum Amduat, in larger libraries (the MFA library, which is open to the public, has it, but it would take a few days to get over to Horticultural Hall from the Egyptology Department), and Budge's Egyptian Heaven and Hell, which is much easier to find and even online. (A small press translation with autograph hieroglyphic text is also online in PDF form.)

In the Second Hour of the Amduat (Y1:t*Z1-V12-i-Z11-m-N14-A-t:O1 mḏ3t-jmj-dw3t 'Book of Things in the Netherworld'), the sun god's boat travels through a region known at Wernes (wr:r-n:z:S wrnz), where the fourth boat encountered is that of the grain god Neper (n:p:r-M33\t1-A40 npr), bearing an armless goddess flanked by two armless gods. In the stern of the boat is a giant ear of grain with legends i-A-t:k-A-m-w-t:t-M2:Z2 j3t-k3mwtt 'staff of grain' and R12-k-Aa15-t:t. The online text of this chapter does not have the hieroglyphic text for that particular section, just Budge's translation "collector of herbs and plants." And the picture is a little hard to make out; the columns in question are between the left-hand ear and the god facing right. Budge's text comes from Lefébure's copy from the tomb of Seti I (KV17). Thanks to the Theban Mapping Project, here is a photo of the original text online. The word kamut written in context three thousand years ago without leaving the breakfast table.


. said...

the coptic doesn't display correctly in my browser; besides that, everything looks great.

who are you!? are you a linguistics professor? i find it fascinating and ever-so-mildly amusing that you would do all of this amazing research just about the names of food items. thanks for the posts.

MMcM said...

I assume that this Coptic test page and this other Coptic test page don't work either. Looks like it's a problem with IE6/7.

I fixed the Coptic in the post by adding an explicit font style around it. Apparently this is the only thing that works. It was okay in FF (and should still be -- the font is ignored). I usually try to test the page in IE, but I missed that this time. Sorry. You will have to have New Athena Unicode installed, since it's an explicit reference. If you don't have it already, get it here. Code2000 and Alphabetum also cover Coptic and more, but they aren't 100% free, so I opted to name that one. If anyone knows a more elegant way around this, by all means let me know and I'll fix the post again.

As to the question of motivation, well, I can't think of much else that characterizes cultures more obviously than language and food. With all the information available on the net now, there are myriad opportunities for it to be knitted together in new ways. I claim no particular competence to do so, but I enjoy trying.

Mad Latinist said...

Excellent work! As we say in Demotic: dwɜ=ỉ pɜ nṯr r-ḏbɜ.ṱ=k! (Hope THAT unicode worked! ;) )

Hans said...

do you know about the Kamut pasta that is being introduced in the states??? email me if you want to find out how to get some:

Greg said...

The Kamut bread from Trader Joe's is scrumptious. Almost inedbile in the raw, this must be toasted for an almost-pastry-like flavor.