Archeologists had always assumed that our early ancestors began baking about 10,000 years ago, after they gave up their nomadic way of life and became farmers. The scientists hypothesized that the abundant grain harvests inspired ancient humans to mill the crop into flour and make bread. However, the discovery of the charred remains of a flatbread that dates back over 14,000 years seems to indicate humans began baking long before their transition to an agricultural-based life.
Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, an archaeobotanist from the University of Copenhagen, stumbled upon the history-changing breadcrumbs while collecting dinner leftovers scattered around an ancient fire pit in Jordan’s Black Desert. The excavation site belonged to the Natufians, a hunter tribe that lived in the area more than 14,000 years ago during the Epipaleolithic time — a period between the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras. The researcher says that the crumbs, which lay alongside the bones of gazelles, sheep, and hares, “Looked like what we find in our toasters — except no one ever heard of people making bread so early in human history.” However, when she showed the scraps to Lara Gonzalez Carretero, a prehistoric food specialist at the University College London Institute of Archaeology, the expert instantly identified them to be primordial breadcrumbs. ”We both realized we were looking at the oldest bread remains in the world," said Gonzalez Carretero.
Further analysis showed that the bread, most likely unleavened, was baked with flour made using two key ingredients – wild einkorn wheat and the roots of club-rush tubers, a type of a flowering plant — as well as small amounts of barley and oats. The combination helped the ancient cooks make a soft, pliable dough that could be placed against the walls of their fire pits and baked to perfection. "Finding bread in this Epipaleolithic site was the last thing we expected!" says Arranz-Otaegui. "We used to think that the first bread appeared during the Neolithic times when people started to cultivate cereal, but it now seems they learned to make bread earlier."
The archeologists, who published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on July 10, 2018, say while the discovery is surprising, it seems logical. Making bread involves husking and grinding the grains to flour, kneading dough, and baking. The intense effort required probably meant that 14,000 years ago, bread was a rare treat reserved for special occasions. The experts speculate that it may have been our ancestors’ desire to eat more of it that led them to take up farming. "In our opinion, instead of domesticating cereals first, the bread-making culture could have been something that actually fueled the domestication of cereal," says Gonzalez Carretero. "So maybe it was the other way around [from what we previously thought.]"
The bread was not the only intriguing find at the firepit. Arranz-Otaegui also found mustard seeds — a wild spice with a pungent taste — indicating that the Natufians had a sophisticated palate. While there is no evidence of the spice in the 25 breadcrumbs analyzed thus far, Arranz-Otaegui would not be surprised to find some in the over 550 breadcrumbs that remain to be scrutinized. The scientist says, “The seeds have [a] very particular taste, so why not use them?”
Curious to know how the ancient bread might have tasted? You are not the only one. Arranz-Otaegui has already reproduced the recipe using flour made from einkorn seeds and the type of tubers used by the Natufian tribe. Her verdict? "It [the flour] is quite gritty and salty, but it is a bit sweet as well."
Resources: NPR.org, pnas.org, guardian.com