Bread predates agriculture by 4,000 years, discover archaeologists

The charred remains of a flatbread baked by hunter-gatherers over 14,000 years ago has been discovered in north-eastern Jordan by a team of researchers from UCL, University of Copenhagen and University of Cambridge.

It is the oldest direct evidence of bread found to date, predating the advent of agriculture by at least 4,000 years. Despite its importance in modern cuisine the origins of bread have until now been widely unknown. It was previously thought that Stone Age (Neolithic) people could have been the first to make bread about 9,000 years ago from the site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey. 

The findings, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 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. The results provide the earliest empirical evidence for the production of bread.

The UCL researchers’ analysed charred food remains from a 14,400-year-old Natufian hunter-gatherer site, known as Shubayqa 1 located in the Black Desert in north-eastern Jordan.

The site, which was initially found and briefly dug up by British archaeologist Alison Betts in the 1990s, consists of two well preserved buildings, each containing a stone fireplace of a large circular structure.

Archaeologists from the University of Copenhagen have conducted four excavation seasons at the site, between 2012 and 2015, where they identified charred food remains along with chipped stones, ground stone tools, animal bones and plant remains.

"Bread involves labour intensive processing which includes dehusking, grinding of cereals 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. 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," said Professor Dorian Fuller (UCL Institute of Archaeology).

Dr Amaia Arranz Otaegui (University of Copenhagen), first author of the study, said "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. The 24 remains analysed 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. The next step is to evaluate if the production and consumption of bread influenced the emergence of plant cultivation and domestication at all."

The charred food remains were analysed with scanning electronic microscopy at a UCL lab by PhD candidate Lara Gonzalez Carratero (UCL Institute of Archaeology) who is an expert on prehistoric bread.

"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 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," said Gonzalez Carratero.

"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. 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," said Professor Tobias Richter (University of Copenhagen), who led the excavations at Shubayqa 1, Jordan.

In the meantime, research at the archaeological sites in north-eastern Jordan continues. A grant recently awarded to the University of Copenhagen team will ensure that research into food making during the transition to the Neolithic will continue.  Meanwhile, research on the identification of early breads and other food remains from later Neolithic sites in Turkey and Iraq continues in the UCL archaeobotany team, with the support of a PhD studentship from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The Shubayqa project research was funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark Permission to excavate was granted by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan.


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