The uncovering of a ‘flatbread’ baked by early hunter-gatherers in northeastern Jordan is reorganizing the order of civilization’s agricultural timeline.
Earliest known bread remains were previously dated back to 9,100 years ago, a millennia after the onset of agricultural practices. But Archaeobotanist Amaia Arranz Otaegui with the University of Copenhagen began working at Shubayqa, Jordan in 2012 and found bread remains that were produced at least 4,000 years earlier by Natufian hunter-gatherers.
It was thought humans began to cultivate wild plants, followed by reproducing crops — resulting in the precursor from which modern day agriculture would evolve. Cereal-based products like bread and beer were thought to have come after the onset of agriculture in the Neolithic period.
“Our findings basically change the order of the events,” Otaegui said. “Now it remains to ascertain whether the production of bread and beer triggered the cultivation, and eventual domestication, of plants. Time will tell.”
Otaegui and researchers from the University of Copenhagen, University College London and University of Cambridge analyzed the charred food remains and found the flatbread-like products found were similar to several Neolithic Roman sites in Europe and Turkey.
According to Otaegui, the Natufian walked great distances in an area known as the Black Desert to cultivate the main ingredients for their bread that was made of wild cereals like einkorn, barley and oat, and club-rush, which is an aquatic plant of the family of the papyrus. Flour may have been made by using tubers of the club rush by grinding the roots. No evidence of yeast being used had been found yet, Otaegui said.
At the dig site, Otaegui and researchers found more than 600 food remains and further analysis is expected.
“For the first time we are dealing with archaeological food remains,” Otaegui said. “In archaeology we have often focused on the recovery of stones, pottery, bones etc. but food remains have been long ignored. I think that they are key, because they allow us to provide direct evidence not only on the plant and animal species consumed, but also in the types of foodstuffs produced with them. And this is something that we cannot analyze or characterize otherwise. It is an emerging frontier of archaeological science, and I’m convinced that it will provide crucial information in the future.”
The charred food remains were analyzed via electron microscopy at University College London lab by Ph.D. candidate Lara Gonzalez Carratero, who is an expert in the study of archaeological cereal products. Through her previous work studying food remains at the Catalhoyuk site in Turkey as part of her Ph.D., Gonzalez Carratero was able to study the ingredients and air bubbles present in the food matrix and compare it with experimental reference collection.
“I realized that what I had in front of me were small fragments of the oldest bread in the world,” Gonzalez Carratero said. “I was able to see fragments of wild cereals which I had never seen before and realized how different these tissues were in comparison to the domesticated ones from my food fragments from Catalhoyuk.”
Gonzalez Carratero said the flatbread most likely tasted bitter and salty with a nutty texture. Coupled with the lower gluten content, the dough may have been less flexible.
“Before this discovery, we previously thought that bread was a result of the domestication of cereals and that slowly became the staple food that it is today; however, we are now starting to think that it might have been the opposite and the desire to make bread (among other reasons) might have fueled the domestication of cereals and agriculture,” Gonzalez Carratero said. “This means that these people invested a lot of time and effort into making these breads and they must have had some type of special meaning which we do not completely understand yet. “
Otaegui said she would like to know what the role of cereal-based products played in the development of modern agriculture, and whether the desire to produce bread triggered the initial cultivation of plants. For Gonzalez Carratero, she will soon submit her Ph.D. thesis soon and will look to carry out research into the origins of bread and other foods.
The complete results of the study can be found in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.