Historians and archaeologists have traditionally linked bread to the dawn of agriculture, when people domesticated plants such as wheat, cultivated them and ground them into flour.
But a new discovery of blackened crumbs at an ancient stone building in the Middle East indicates that people were baking bread thousands of years earlier. Based on the radiocarbon dates of charred plants in nearby fireplaces, the food scraps are about 14,400 years old. That’s about 4,000 years before agriculture emerged, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Our work shows that bread was not a product of settled, complex societies but a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer society,” said study author Amaia Arranz Otaegui, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen.
Archaeologists found the bread remains in sediment samples at a site named Shubayqa 1 in Jordan. The structure was oval with a fireplace in the center. Arranz Otaegui said she did not know whether the building was a dwelling or had other, perhaps ceremonial, purposes.
Sifting through the sediment, Arranz Otaegui noticed samples she couldn’t place at first; they were not seeds, nuts or charred wood. Instead, they looked just like the crumbs that accumulate at the bottom of a toaster. Study author and University College London graduate student Lara Gonzalez Carretero, using Natufian technology, has been experimentally re-creating the flour and dough. Pores in the samples mimicked the bubbles that appeared in the re-created bread.
“The main criteria on the identification of bread is its porous texture,” Arranz Otaegui said. “If we take other foodstuffs like porridge or gruel, we will see pieces of grain but not all these micro-pores.” She said the closest common bread to these crumbs might be a pita, but she also said the Natufian bread was probably unleavened, like matzoh or tortillas.
Archaeologists knew that hunter-gatherers in this region could grind and bake food, “The Shubayqa breadlike find is, however, the first of its kind,” he said.
Cereal plants are high in calories. The traditional view was that early farmers domesticated those plants first, and then bakers began to turn cereals into bread. Study author Dorian Fuller, a professor of archaeobotany at University College London, said the discovery made him question “whether domestication was really driven by caloric necessity,” as has been claimed.
It was unclear to the study authors whether these breads were regularly eaten or occasional meals, or perhaps even luxury foods; other researchers have suggested that bread and beer were consumed during Natufian feasts.