Researchers working in north-eastern Jordan have found the charred remains of a flatbread baked by hunter-gatherers 14,400 years ago – the oldest direct evidence of bread yet found, predating the advent of agriculture by at least 4000 years.
Bread has been called “the essential food for most people for most of recorded history”. Despite its ubiquity, however, scientists have still to trace its earliest emergence in human society.
That moment may be getting closer, however. Researchers led by Amaia Arranz Otaegui from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark have analysed charred food remains from a 14,400-year-old Natufian hunter-gatherer site in the Black Desert in north-eastern Jordan. The results reportedly provide the earliest empirical evidence for the production of bread.
Their findings suggest that bread production based on wild cereals may have encouraged hunter-gatherers to cultivate cereals, and thus contributed to the agricultural revolution in the Neolithic period.
Otaegui and colleagues say their findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that wild precursors of domesticated cereals such as barley, einkorn and oat had been ground, sieved and kneaded before cooking. The remains are similar to unleavened flatbreads identified at several Neolithic and Roman sites in Europe and Turkey.
“So we now know that bread-like products were produced long before the development of farming,” says Otaegui. “The next step is to evaluate if the production and consumption of bread influenced the emergence of plant cultivation and domestication.”
University of Copenhagen archaeologist Tobias Richter, who led the excavations in Jordan, says Natufian hunter-gatherers are of particular interest because they lived through a transitional period when people became more sedentary and their diet began to change.
Flint sickle blades and ground stone tools found at Natufian sites in the Levant have led archaeologists to suspect that people had begun to exploit plants in a different and perhaps more effective way.
Despite debate stretching back half a century about whether it was baking or beer brewing that led to the development of domesticated grains, Richter says the flat bread found at the Jordan site is “the earliest evidence of bread making recovered so far, and it shows that baking was invented before we had plant cultivation”.
“So this evidence confirms some of our ideas,” he explains.
“Indeed, it may be that the early and extremely time-consuming production of bread based on wild cereals may have been one of the key driving forces behind the later agricultural revolution where wild cereals were cultivated to provide more convenient sources of food.”
The charred remains were analysed in the UK at a University College London (UCL) lab. Researcher Lara Gonzalez Carratero says identifying bread or other cereal-based products in archaeology is difficult.
“There has been a tendency to simplify classification without really testing it against an identification criteria,” she says.
“We have established a new set of criteria to identify flat bread, dough and porridge-like products in the archaeological record. Using scanning electron microscopy, we identified the microstructures and particles of each charred food remain.”
Another UCL researcher, Dorian Fuller, explains that bread involves labour-intensive processing which includes dehusking, grinding, and kneading and baking.
“That it was produced before farming methods suggests it was seen as special, and the desire to make more of this special food probably contributed to the decision to begin to cultivate cereals,” he says.
“All of this relies on new methodological developments that allow us to identify the remains of bread from very small charred fragments using high magnification.”
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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