Researchers have discovered that long before the development of agriculture, ancient hunter-gatherers harvested cereals to bake bread.
A new study examined charred remains found in fireplaces in a 14,400-year-old Natufian hunter-gatherer site, called Shubayqa 1, located in the Black Desert in northeastern Jordan. It makes the earliest evidence of flatbread and bread baking found to date.
Researchers from the University of Copenhagen, University College London and the University of Cambridge conducted the study and the results suggest that baking bread from gathered cereals led to the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic period.
What’s most notable about the ancient fireplaces is that the flatbread remains predate agriculture by 4,000 years.
The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“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,” said Amaia Arranz Otaegui, the first author of the study. “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 researchers analyzed 24 charred remains and found that hunter-gatherers in the Jordan site ground, sifted, and kneaded cereals similar to barley, einkorn, and oat before baking them into bread.
The team examined the remains using electron microscopy. In order to better identify the remains, the researchers created a new set of criteria to differentiate flatbread, dough, and porridge in the archaeological record.
It’s possible that given the presence of bread before farming, the desire for bread could have influenced the cultivation of cereals to make bread production easier, and according to Arranz Otaegui, that’s what the researchers plan to delve into next.
“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,” said Tobias Richter, an archeologist who led the excavations.