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Bread is much older than agriculture and may be a driving factor rather than the result

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Posted July 21, 2018

Humans started their agricultural practices around 10 thousand years ago. Growing food in the same place was very important for early settlements and formation of civilizations. It was even more important in order to survive. But the first flatbread, remains of which were discovered in north-eastern Jordan by a team of researchers from UCL, University of Copenhagen and University of Cambridge, predates agriculture by at least 4000 years.

We can’t help, but wonder – what that ancient bread, baked from wild cereals, tasted like? (Note: modern flatbread is pictured in the image). Image credit: Neitram via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This flatbread was baked by hunter-gatherers over 14,000 years ago. This is the oldest known evidence of bread. Before its discovery it was widely accepted that history of bread started 9,000 years ago somewhere in the area of the current Çatalhöyük in Turkey. Before scientists thought that humans learned to cultivate cereals and then learned to use them to make bread. Now they are thinking that at first humans learned to make bread from wild cereals and then decided to cultivate them. It means that bread contributed to the agricultural revolution in the Neolithic period and was not the result of it.

The oldest flatbread remains were found in excavation site of two ancient stone fireplaces. Image credit: Alexis Pantos / UCL

Scientists gathered this information from charred food remains from a 14,400-year-old Natufian hunter-gatherer site in the Black Desert in north-eastern Jordan. This site has been briefly excavated back in 1990’ and it has remains of two buildings with stone fireplace of a large circular structure. Some charred food proves that our ancestors had wild cereals such as barley, einkorn, and oat, which they ground, sieved and kneaded prior to cooking. In other words, they actually made simple flatbread. Identification of bread is quite a challenge in the archaeological sense and scientists had to establish some criteria what is and what isn’t actual bread.

It’s not only the bread, but also tools to cultivate wild cereals that are attracting scientific attention. Professor Tobias Richter, leader of the excavations, said that Natufian hunter-gatherers “lived through a transitional period when people became more sedentary and their diet began to change. 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”. Now scientists will try to understand the influence of bread on emerging cultivation and domestication at the beginning of the agricultural era.

And we are left to wonder – is that flatbread really much different than what we can buy and eat today? Would we find it too dry and not tasty? Or maybe bread from wild cereals is much nicer than our current mass produced bread?

Source: UCL

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