The Origins of Bread—Before the Agricultural Revolution

By Natalya Hebert


All around the world, bread is seen as a necessity to life. Prisoners given just enough sustenance to survive are given “bread and water.” It is a staple in hundreds of food cultures and holds an important role in many religious traditions, like in Judaism and in Christianity. The simplest recipe for bread is a mixture of ground-up grain and water that is then cooked in some way, either baked, fried, or steamed. The origin of bread is largely unknown but has often been attributed to a time after the invention of agriculture, when people created a more palatable way to eat the grain that they were growing. However, new evidence has revealed that bread was being cooked 14,400 years ago, 4000 years before the emergence of agriculture (Arranz-Otaegui et al., 2018).


In northeast Jordan, a small country in Southwest Asia, there is a hunter-gatherer archaeological site that dates back to the Natufin period, between 14,600 to 11,600 years ago. At this site, archaeologists discovered a structure made of basalt stones laid down to create smooth paving with a firepit in the center, strewn with artifacts such as stone tools, animal bones, and plant remains. It is these plant remnants that open up an entire new trail of evidence for the diet and culture of the people who lived here during this time.

Shubayqa site firepit (Arranz-Otaegui et al. 2018)

The firepit contained the remains of 95 different species of plants, including crucifers, legumes, wheat barley, and oats. Of the over 600 lumps of charred food remains, at least 24 were identified as types of unleavened bread (Arranz-Otaegui et al., 2018). There is also evidence in the size of the grain particles and stone tools that the grain was meticulously ground to a fine powder analogous to today’s flour. The absence of an oven at the site suggests that the bread was cooked directly in the coals, and starch analysis shows that the bread was likely very dense.


These findings are quite astounding, considering the labor that goes into the process of making bread—dehusking, milling, drying, and cooking the grain—which each take several steps of ingenuity to figure out. Each step is necessary though, as these modifications reduce indigestible components and improve starch and protein absorption. The high production cost involved in bread-making suggests that bread was not an everyday food for these people, but perhaps used in religious practices like feasting or as a gift to visitors.


By 7000 BCE, domesticated cereal grains were in abundance in Southwest Asia. As more wild grains were harvested and processed, the value of this unique food grew, and within four or five thousand years an entire system around cereal plant cultivation was in full swing: agriculture. For such a pivotal development in the history of the human species, this discovery is an amazing insight into understanding where, and maybe even why, it began. Were the Natufin people stocking up for a journey with easily transportable and nutrient-dense breads? Was this idea new to them, or was it already a widespread practice at the time? These kinds of questions are what make the topic of anthropology so interesting, and the reason why research like this is conducted in the first place. It is these questions which have spurred on some of the most amazing discovery of human history, and will continue to do so forever.


References:


Arranz-Otaegui, A., Carretero, L. G., Ramsey, M. N., Fuller, D. Q., & Richter, T. (2018). Archaeobotanical evidence reveals the origins of bread 14,400 years ago in northeastern Jordan. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(31), 7925-7930. doi:10.1073/pnas.1801071115

The Development of Agriculture. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/development-of-agriculture/

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