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the web of life in southern Africa

Lens culinaris (Lentil)

[= Lens esculenta]

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Eudicotyledons > Core Eudicots > Rosids > Eurosid I > Fabales > Family: Fabaceae > Subfamily: Papilionoideae

Lens culinaris (Lentil)

Lens culinaris, Vienna Botanical Gardens, Austria. [photo H.G. Robertson, Iziko ]

Originates from the Near East and central Asia. People were harvesting wild lentils by 11200 years ago and by 8800 years ago they were being cultivated.

Lens culinaris is native to the Near East and central Asia. The wild subspecies Lens culinaris orientalis is found in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and central Asia. Domestication involved selecting for plants that retain their seeds in the pod so that they are not lost before harvest, and selecting for greater seed size. Like many domesticated food plants, L. culinaris is mainly self-pollinated which means that it is easy to keep separate breeding lines.

The domestication of Lens culinaris formed an important part of the agricultural revolution in the Neolithic, along with Wheat and Barley. Although the amount harvested per unit area for Lentil is less than for Wheat and Barley, the high protein content (25%) of Lentil seeds makes them a highly nutritious (and tasty) food source. The same argument applies to peas and chickpeas which were also part of the Neolithic agricultural scene. Small seeds of Lentil have been found in archaeological excavations of pre-farming comunities in Syria dating from 9200 to 7500 BC. It is clear that at this time people were harvesting seeds of wild Lentil, wild Barley and wild Einkorn Wheat. It is difficult to establish when Lentil started being domesticated because the only way one can determine evidence of domestication from seeds is an increase in seed size which happened only gradually over a long period of time. However, there is clear evidence from a large store of lentils found at an archaeological site in northern Israel that by 6800 BC Lentil were being cultivated. Lentil seeds are also found abundantly in later Neolithic sites.

Lentil is grown these days mainly in the region extending from the Atlantic coast of Spain and Morocco in the west through to India in the east. From the time of its domestication through till about 500 years ago, Lentil was more important as a food to people than Pea but in the last few hundred years, peas have become predominant.  


  • Sauer, J.D. 1993. Historical geography of crop plants - a select roster. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

  • Zohary, D. & Hopf, M. 1993. Domestication of plants in the old World - The origin and spread of cultivated plants in West Asia, Europe, and the Nile Valley. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Text by Hamish Robertson