Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

Our 14,400-Year-Old Relationship with Bread

Archaeological evidence from Jordan is challenging what we thought we knew about hunter–gatherer diets.

Scientific American

Read when you’ve got time to spare.


Our understanding of our ancestor’s diets is only as good as what we can find in the archaeological record. Photo by Erik Isakson/Getty Images

Indians have roti, naan, paratha, and daal puri. Armenians have lavash. Ethiopians have injera. The French have the boule, brioche, and baguette. The British have scones. And the Polish have challah. These are but a few of the different types of breads that are enjoyed around the world. Despite its widespread existence, however, bread is regarded by many as a “bad” food, and many willingly avoid it (without health concerns, like gluten intolerance, as a driving factor). And yet according to a study our relationship with bread may date back to at least 14,400 years ago. It may be even older but that’s just the point where we have proof bread existed. Why is this significant? It changes our understanding of how our human ancestors may have eaten and potentially how they may have interacted with their environment. And it challenges what we think we know about how to eat.

In the Black Desert region of northeast Jordan, a group of hunter-gatherers set up camp somewhere between 14.5 - 11.6 thousand years ago. Well, it may have been a little more than a camp as the findings report that the site—known as Shubayqa 1—includes two well-preserved superimposed buildings. These were semi-subterranean structures with a flagstone path constructed from local basalt. The older building is referred to as Structure 1 and it is within Structure 1 where two fireplaces were built sequentially that our story unfolds. The inhabitants of the site neglected to clean the older fireplace after its last use; this fireplace was covered by a deposit of about .5 meter that blanketed the building. Subsequent occupants to Shubayqa 1 built another fireplace over the original. They, too, left the fireplace intact following their last use. It is from these structures that bread-like materials and charred plant remains were recovered. Of the plants the most common sample was of club-rush tubers, which is notable because this plant lends itself to flour production in order to be consumed.

Archaeologists recovered twenty-two “bread-like” remains from the older fireplace, and two from the more recent fireplace. Anyone who has had some experience with bread knows that while it may be calorically filling, it’s not exactly likely to last through the ages. So how do we know these finds are prehistoric breads? There are criteria for identifying flat bread, dough, and porridge-like materials in the archaeological record. For bread this means measuring the pores or voids that are created as gas cells expand during cooking. Based on this understanding the remains recovered from Shubayqa 1 are likely an unleavened flat bread product: the voids were about 0.15mm in size and covered about 16% of the samples. These findings were consistent with other “flat breads” recovered from Neolithic and Roman sites in Europe and Turkey.

But if that doesn’t convince you, let’s take a look at the predominant plant material recovered from the fireplace. Scientists recovered over 65,000 non-woody plan macroremains belonging to at least 95 taxa. While the club-rush tubers were most common, other plans included small seeded legumes, wild wheat, barley, and oat. Ethnobotanical evidence, as well as experiential recreations, suggest that club-rush tubers are better when processed instead of just boiling or steaming. Scientists report that pure club-rush tuber bread is brittle and crumbly, but the addition of wheat flour will create a moldable dough that can be cooked in tandoor-type ovens easily (which is essentially what these fireplaces were). Club-rush tubers were being used in this way in late-Neolithic sites in Turkey and The Netherlands. Additionally 46% of the wild wheat and barley grains recovered at the site showed a bulging pattern on broken edges, which is caused by grinding grains before charring—and also linked to flour making.

We know that bread is a part of our culinary history. It has been found in Neolithic sites throughout Europe and southwest Asia. The prior oldest sample is from Anatolia, Turkey and dates to 9,500 years ago. Everything that has been previously found dates firmly within the agricultural revolution. And that is logical. Making bread is work, after all: you have to cultivate, harvest, dehusk, and grind the cereal grains, and then knead and bake the dough which necessitates the building of a fireplace or oven. This requires time and commitment. But that doesn’t mean it was impossible prior to the rise of agriculture.

The inhabitants of Shubayqa 1 weren’t pastoral. The remains recovered from Jordan are older and also are tied to a different period in our evolutionary history. Shubayqa 1 is linked to the Natufian culture which is a transitionary period leading to the onset of the Neolithic. The direct descendants of Natufian are believed to be the ones who established agriculture and set us on the course to our present day, but the Natifuan lived semi-sedentary lifestyles. They built camps like those found at Shubayqa 1 but moved about the landscape in accordance with a rhythm that made sense to them. And wheat and barley occurred naturally in southwest Asia, so some populations were already familiar with these grains. Given that the remains recovered are tied to the last uses of the fireplaces in the settlement, it is possible that the residents were making bread to create a portable food item; light, long-lasting, and high in calories, bread would have been ideal for a group on-the-go. Alternatively, given the work required to produce bread, it’s possible that this was a festival food, something that would have been eaten on a special occasion.

In either case, bread certainly wouldn’t have achieved everyday status until the advent of agriculture. And these finds tell us that these hunter-gatherers were interacting with their spaces differently than the lack of evidence suggested. Hunter-gatherer diets are often discussed in terms of animals and seafoods because these are the remains that have largely been recovered at the sites they occupied. Plant material isn’t preserved as well within the fossil record, and we are only just beginning to understand how to analyze what we do find. The remains from Jordan show us that these inhabitants of Subayqa 1 were processing plants and making plant-based foods. And this may have an impact on our present-day dietary pursuits.

In America, at the moment, carbohydrates top the list of bad-for-you-foods and many people are avoiding bread, rice and other related items. The problem is that we actually need carbohydrates, but we often don't make the distinction between simple and complex carbs and everything gets lumped into the bad-for-you label. This has led to the rise of specialized diets like the Paleo diet, which is meant to mimic the foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate during the Paleolithic, a period of approximately 2.6 million years ago to roughly the start of the agricultural revolution.

The labeling of bread and other carbohydrate friendly foods as “bad” has led to the rise of specialized diets like the Paleo diet, which is meant to mimic the foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate 2.6 million years ago until they settled into an agrarian lifestyle. The argument for following a Paleo diet is fueled by the belief that we haven’t genetically adapted to eating farmed and processed foods. The Paleo diet maintains we should predominantly eat lean meats and fish, and not include dairy, beans or cereal grains—foods that we believed our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not eat.

But we’re learning that our understanding of our ancestor’s diets is only as good as what we can find in the archaeological record. The rise of agriculture was not our dietary undoing, although it certainly wrought changes in our lifestyles which undoubtedly impacted our health. Cooking foods gave early humans more energy to devote to brain growth and more calories, so they could gain weight. Modern humans are victims of this success: we have gotten so good at processing and consuming foods that we’re getting more calories than we actually can burn in a day. Our relationship with food and food production isn’t a static thing. Our understanding didn’t peak 15,000 years ago. This relationship is a dynamic one that will continue to unfold as more of our evolutionary history is revealed.

Unless there is a medical reason to avoid carbohydrates or gluten, our complicated relationship with bread may only be complicated because we make it so. And it will remain that way until we’re willing to examine in depth what and how we eat.

Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook.

Referenced: Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, Lara Gonzalez Carretero, Monica N. Ramsey, Dorian Q. Fuller, Tobias Richter. Archaeobotanical evidence reveals the origins of bread 14,400 years ago in northeastern Jordan. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2018; 201801071 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1801071115

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for Scientific American

This post originally appeared on Scientific American and was published July 24, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

Did you enjoy this Scientific American article?

Get our FREE daily newsletter