An old problem

Mankind is said to have begun cultivating the land 10.000 years ago. With agriculture followed a large production of food and a stable food supply, because people were able to store grain from harvest to harvest. Storing grain in larger amounts in one location meant new and improved possibilities for animals which natural habitats and food supply had up until now been food spill from birds’ nests and rodents’ winter supplies. These are merely tiny versions of human made storages.

Remains of Egyptian burial gifts prove that even 5.000 years ago people dealt with the exact same types of insects that we deal with today in modern food storages. That includes, among other species, granary weevils, confused flour beetles, drugstore beetles, lesser grain borers, saw-toothed grain beetles, spider beetles and cigarette beetles. Our ancestors might have acted casually having beetles in their food, but they too had to take precautionary measures to ensure their own share of the food.

In ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire, storage methods which prevented both fungus and pests were used. Grain was put into pits in the ground. The grain produced carbon dioxide which absorbed the oxygen and thereby created the effect we today know from gastight silos. As physical protection against insects the grain was mixed with ash, salt or even road dust. Sharp particles from the ash, salt or dust would then break the insect skin, and the insects would eventually die due to loss of water through the broken skin. Chemical means were also taken into use. For example the extract from olive kernels, hay and sagewort were used to treat storage units and their immediate surroundings. The efficiency of these remedies has no doubt been poor compared to modern insecticides.

In medieval Europe, corn dealers had gained an understanding of the need for low temperatures and adequate airing of the grain.
The grain storages then had cooling and ventilation systems in the form of vents in ceilings. Literature tells us tales of storages with 400 years old grain, and of Emperor Karl the fifth in year 1540 in Nuremberg who was served bread that was supposedly baked from 118 years old flour.

Between the years 1120 to 1733 pests were often the subject to ecclesiastical and secular trials. The insects were charged and sentenced exclusion from the ecclesiastical community as well as they were sometimes fined for their actions. One of the last known trials of the sort took place on the Danish island Als in the year 1711. The citizens on Als took out summons against both rats and mice. The pests would then be appointed defence attorneys and so the law took its course. As one could expect the pests lost and was then sentenced to disappear into the sea within fifteen days. It is said that after that episode the local fishermen found many dead rats when they came to check on their pound nets. The grounds for these trials were obvious for people back then. They sought justice and turned to that authority that could give them justice in situations where nothing else could.