At an archaeological site in northeastern Jordan, researchers have discovered the charred remains of a flatbread baked by hunter-gatherers 14,400 years ago. It is the oldest direct evidence of bread found to date, predating the advent of agriculture by at least 4,000 years. The findings suggest that bread production based on wild cereals may have encouraged hunter-gatherers to cultivate cereals, and thus contributed to the agricultural revolution in the Neolithic period.1

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Fig. 2. The site of Shubayqa 1 showing Structure 1 and one of the fireplaces (the oldest one) where the bread-like remains were discovered.
Fig. 2. The site of Shubayqa 1 showing Structure 1 and one of the fireplaces (the oldest one) where the bread-like remains were discovered.

Archaeobotanical evidence reveals the origins of bread 14,400 years ago in northeastern Jordan

Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, Lara Gonzalez Carretero, Monica N. Ramsey, Dorian Q. Fuller, and Tobias Richter

PNAS July 16, 2018. 201801071; published ahead of print July 16, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.18010711151

Significance

Despite being one of the most important foodstuffs consumed in the modern world, the origins of bread are still largely unknown. Here we report the earliest empirical evidence for the preparation of bread-like products by Natufian hunter-gatherers, 4,000 years before the emergence of the Neolithic agricultural way of life. The discovery of charred food remains has allowed for the reconstruction of the chaîne opératoire for the early production of bread-like products. Our results suggest the use of the wild ancestors of domesticated cereals (e.g. wild einkorn) and club-rush tubers to produce flat bread-like products. Cereal-based meals such as bread probably become staples when Neolithic farmers started to rely on the cultivation of domesticated cereal species for their subsistence.

Abstract

The origins of bread have long been associated with the emergence of agriculture and cereal domestication during the Neolithic in southwest Asia. In this study we analyze a total of 24 charred food remains from Shubayqa 1, a Natufian hunter-gatherer site located in northeastern Jordan and dated to 14.6–11.6 ka cal BP. Our finds provide empirical data to demonstrate that the preparation and consumption of bread-like products predated the emergence of agriculture by at least 4,000 years. The interdisciplinary analyses indicate the use of some of the “founder crops” of southwest Asian agriculture (e.g., Triticum boeoticum, wild einkorn) and root foods (e.g., Bolboschoenus glaucus, club-rush tubers) to produce flat bread-like products. The available archaeobotanical evidence for the Natufian period indicates that cereal exploitation was not common during this time, and it is most likely that cereal-based meals like bread become staples only when agriculture was firmly established.

    • 1. Edited by Dolores R. Piperno, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, and approved June 12, 2018 (received for review January 19, 2018)