Ancient bakers made bread 4,000 years before farming

One of the stone structures of the Shubayqa 1 site with the fireplace where researchers found the bread in the middle. (Credit: Alexis Pantos via U. Copenhagen)

Researchers have discovered the charred remains of a flatbread that hunter-gatherers baked 14,400 years ago. It is the oldest direct evidence of bread found to date, predating the advent of agriculture by at least 4,000 years.

The 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.

Baking bread before farming

The researchers found the charred food remains at a 14,400-year-old Natufian hunter-gatherer site known as Shubayqa 1 located in the Black Desert in northeastern Jordan.

“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,” says first author Amaia Arranz Otaegui, an archaeobotanist at the University of Copenhagen.

sampling cereals
Amaia Arranz-Otaegui and Ali Shakaiteer sampling cereals in the Shubayqa area. (Credit: Joe Roe via U. Copenhagen)

“The 24 remains analyzed in this study show that wild ancestors of domesticated cereals such as barley, einkorn, and oat had been ground, sieved, and kneaded prior to cooking. 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,” Otaegui says.

“The next step is to evaluate if the production and consumption of bread influenced the emergence of plant cultivation and domestication at all.”

“…extremely time-consuming production of bread based on wild cereals may have been one of the key driving forces behind the later agricultural revolution…”

“Natufian hunter-gatherers are of particular interest to us because they lived through a transitional period when people became more sedentary and their diet began to change, explains Tobias Richter, an archaeologist at University of Copenhagen who led the excavations at Shubayqa 1 in Jordan.

“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 exploit plants in a different and perhaps more effective way. But the flat bread found at Shubayqa 1 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,” Richter says.

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“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,” he says.

Looking closer

Lara Gonzalez Carratero, a PhD candidate at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London who is an expert on prehistoric bread, analyzed the charred food remains with electronic microscopy.

“That [bread] was produced before farming methods suggests it was seen as special…”

“The identification of ‘bread’ or other cereal-based products in archaeology is not straightforward. There has been a tendency to simplify classification without really testing it against an identification criteria. 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,” says Gonzalez Carratero.

“Bread involves labor intensive processing which includes dehusking, grinding of cereals, and kneading and baking,” explains Dorian Fuller, a professor of archaeobotany. “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,” Fuller says.

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The research appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Independent Research Fund Denmark funded the Shubayqa project. The Department of Antiquities of Jordan granted permission to excavate. Additional researchers from the University of Copenhagen, University College London, and the University of Cambridge contributed to the project.

Source: University of Copenhagen