Oldest crumbs in history

Bread was being baked in Jordan 4,000 years before the start of agriculture

At 14,400-year-old hunter-gatherer site, archaeologists find oldest direct evidence of breadmaking, suggesting desire for bread may have sparked farming

Dr. Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, right, and Ali Shakaiteer sampling cereals in the Shubayqa area in northeastern Jordan where ancient bread was found. (Joe Roe)
Dr. Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, right, and Ali Shakaiteer sampling cereals in the Shubayqa area in northeastern Jordan where ancient bread was found. (Joe Roe)

Archaeologists working in northeastern Jordan have discovered the charred remains of bread baked 14,400 years ago, at least 4,000 years before the agricultural revolution brought farming to the region.

The find, the oldest direct evidence of bread ever discovered, suggests that ancient hunter-gatherers were grinding cereals such as oat, barley and einkorn and turning them into flatbreads long before they were systematically cultivating the plants. The need to prepare bread may have led to agriculture, and not the reverse, researchers now say.

“The presence of hundreds of charred food remains in the fireplaces from Shubayqa 1″ — the location of the discovery — “is an exceptional find, and it has given us the chance to characterize 14,000-year-old food practices,” said University of Copenhagen archaeobotanist Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, the lead author of the study.

“The 24 remains analyzed 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,” Arranz-Otaegui said.

The site was used by hunter-gatherers known as Natufians.

A stone structure at the Shubayqa 1 archaeological site in northeastern Jordan, where ancient bread was found. The fireplace where the bread was baked is in the middle. (Alexis Pantos)

According to University of Copenhagen archaeologist Tobias Richter, who led the Shubayqa 1 excavations, “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.”

He added: “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. So this evidence confirms some of our ideas. 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.”

“Bread involves labor 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,” notes University College London Institute of Archaeology professor Dorian Fuller.

UCL’s Lara Gonzalez Carratero conducted the electronic microscopy that identified the charred remains as a flatbread.

The dig, located in the Black Desert in northeastern Jordan, is being carried out by a team from three universities, the University of Copenhagen, University College London and University of Cambridge. Its findings were published Monday in the US-based journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Most Popular
read more: