Archaeologists have pleasantly surprised themselves by discovering charred remains of flatbread in a stone fireplace in north-eastern Jordan, believed to have been baked some 14,500 years ago.
Until the discovery, it had been widely accepted that art of baking developed after man discovered agriculture.
However, the latest findings have shattered that myth, as we now know that some form of bread-making was happening as early as 4,000 years before humans learned how to grow food.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the study discusses the earliest “empirical evidence” that shows Epipaleolithic Natufian people had knowledge of making some form of bread, millennia before agriculture became a full-fledged way of life in the Neolithic times.
Reconstruction of the operational sequence using the burnt remains, indicates that although they were, essentially, hunter-gatherers, the Natufian people were also making bread with ingredients that included wildly growing ancestors of domesticated cereals, like wild einkorn, and club-rush tubers.
Based on the “archaeobotanical evidence” uncovered, the authors strongly believe that cereal-based food like bread became staples after the advent of Neolithic agriculture when farmers started cultivating domesticated cereal species for their everyday dietary requirements.
The charred breadcrumbs were found in two ancient basalt-stone fireplaces at a location called Shubayqa 1, a hunter-gatherer site in Jordan’s north-eastern region.
University of Copenhagen postdoctoral researcher in archaeobotany and lead author of the study Amaia Arranz-Otaegui led a research team to the Shubayqa 1 site where they were able to date the dug-up evidence to around 14.4 millennia ago, using the tried and tested radiocarbon dating method.
This was the time between 14,600 and 11,600 years ago when people from the early Natufian period hunted and gathered and, evidently, made bread-like products, in the Levant region in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Until the Shubayqa 1 discovery, the oldest evidence of bread known to archaeologists had originated 9,500 years ago in the Çatalhöyük settlement, in Anatolia, Turkey.
However, the Shubayqa 1 bread has, effectively, broken that archaeological record, long held by the Çatalhöyük bread, by a huge lead of 5,000 years.
Using a Scanning Electron Microscope, or SEM, the researchers were able to capture high-resolution images of 24 fragments of the charred remains that enabled them to better analyze the fine structures within those pieces.
However, due to the time-consuming nature of the SEM analysis procedure, the researchers were able to study only 24 pieces out of some 600 fragments resembling bread or bread-like leftovers from the past.
“The presence of bread at a site of this age is exceptional,” said Arranz-Otaegui.
“We now have to assess whether there was a relationship between bread production and the origins of agriculture,” she said, adding that it was possible that bread may have been “an incentive for people to take up plant cultivation and farming if it became a desirable or much-sought-after food.”
Speaking to Gizmodo, Tobias Richter – an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen and one of the authors of the PNAS-published study – said that the discovery was against established beliefs in more ways than one.
“First, that bread predates the advent of agriculture and farming—it was always thought that it was the other way round,” Richter told Gizmodo.
“Second, that the bread was of high quality since it was made using quite fine flour. We didn’t expect to find such high-quality flour this early on in human history,” he went on.
“Third, the hunter-gatherer bread we have does not only contain flour from wild barley, wheat and oats, but also from tubers, namely tubers from water plants (sedges). The bread was, therefore, more of a multi-grain-tuber bread, rather than a white loaf,” added the research co-author.
Richter is of the opinion that the new method of specimen analysis used on the Shubayqa 1 samples should be employed by other researchers, as well, to study archaeological collections that pre-date the new evidence, which could, possibly, lead to the discovery of even older samples of bread and bread-like products.
“I think it’s quite important to recognize that bread is such a hugely important staple in the world today,” Richter told Gizmodo.
“That it can now be shown to have started a lot earlier than previously thought is quite intriguing, I think, and may help to explain the huge variety of different types of breads that have evolved in different cultures around the world over the millennia,” he said.
Dorian Fuller, who is also one of the study co-authors and a University College London archaeobotanist, says that there’s a strong likelihood that the Natufian-era hunter-gatherers had learned how to make bread in the absence of agriculture.
“Bread at it its most basic is flour, water, and dry heat. The flour should also ideally include some protein, such as gluten, that occurs in wheat to hold the batter together and provide elasticity,” Fuller told Gizmodo, adding that it would require “a suitable flour, and wild wheats and barleys contain gluten.”
Francesca Balossi Restelli from the Sapienza University of Rome, who wasn’t part of the Shubayqa 1 research, told Gizmodo that she wasn’t really surprised, as discoveries such as this can always be expected.
“Certainly, finding charred remains of flour products is the much-needed demonstration of what the large quantity of mortars, pestles, and moulders were already showing us,” she said.
“If people were cultivating plants, if they had mortars, then they must have been baking ‘bread-like’ foods,” Restelli added.
“The discovery described in the PNAS article is thus certainly extremely meaningful, but not totally unexpected. It is very nice news, as it confirms today’s trend of thought and research,” she said.