Hunter-gatherers were baking bread thousands of years before the birth of farming, archaeologists have discovered after digging up pieces from the world’s oldest loaf.
The remains of a charred flatbread were found at an archaeological site in Jordan dating back 14,400 years by an European team of researchers including experts from University College London and The University of Cambridge.
It is the oldest direct evidence of bread found to date, and it predates the advent of agriculture by at least 4,000 years.
The team say the effort needed to produce bread from wild grains probably meant it was reserved for special occasions.
“Bread involves labour intensive processing which includes dehusking, grinding of cereals and kneading and baking,” said Professor Dorian Fuller, of the UCL Institute of Archaeology.
“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.
“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.”
The bread was discovered at a hunter-gatherer site known as Shubayqa 1 located in the Black Desert in northeastern Jordan.
The people who lived there, known as Natufians, existed through the transition from hunter-gathering to farming and so are often studied by archaeologists hoping to understand when and why the switch occurred.
The remains analysed show that wild ancestors of domesticated cereals such as barley, einkorn, and oat had been ground, sieved and kneaded prior to cooking.
Flint sickle blades as well as ground stone tools found at Natufian sites in the Levant have long led archaeologists to suspect that people had begun to use plants in new ways, rather than simply eating them raw.
But the flat bread found at Shubayqa 1 is the earliest evidence of bread making so far, and it shows that baking was invented way before we plants were cultivated.
“The presence of hundreds of charred food remains in the fireplaces from Shubayqa 1 is an exceptional find, and it has given us the chance to characterize 14,000-year-old food practices,” said archaeobotanist Amaia Arranz Otaegui, of the University of Copenhagen who is the first author of the study.
“The remains are very 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.
“The next step is to evaluate if the production and consumption of bread influenced the emergence of plant cultivation and domestication at all.”
The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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