Hunter-gatherers were baking bread thousands of years before the birth of farming. This remarkable discovery was made by archaeologists who dug up pieces of the world’s oldest loaf. The remains of a charred flatbread were found at an archaeological site in Jordan by a European team of researchers including experts from University of Copenhagen, University College London and University of Cambridge. The site dates back 14,400 years and the find is the oldest direct evidence of bread found to date, predating the advent of agriculture by at least 4,000 years.
The bread was discovered at a hunter-gatherer site known as Shubayqa 1 located in the Black Desert in north eastern Jordan. The people who lived there, known as Natufians, existed through the transition from hunter-gathering to farming and so are often studied by archaeologists hoping to understand when and why the switch occurred.
The remains analysed show that wild ancestors of domesticated cereals such as barley, einkorn, and oat had been ground, sieved and kneaded prior to cooking. This is the earliest evidence of bread making, and it shows that baking was invented long before plants were cultivated.
The team say the effort needed to produce bread from wild grains probably meant it was reserved for special occasions. “Bread involves labour intensive processing which includes de-husking, grinding of cereals and kneading and baking,” said Professor Dorian Fuller of the UCL Institute of Archaeology. “The fact 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”.
“The presence of hundreds of charred food remains in the fireplaces from Shubayqa 1 is an exceptional find” said archaeo-botanist Amaia Arranz Otaegui of the University of Copenhagen. “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 research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Text Alun Harvey