Bits of Ancient Bread Unearthed in Jordan

Bits of Ancient Bread Unearthed in Jordan

SUN 17 FEB 2019 02:25 AM

Bits of Ancient Bread Unearthed in Jordan:

One of the fireplaces where the bread-like products were discovered at Shubayqa in northeastern Jordan.
One of the fireplaces where the bread-like products were discovered at Shubayqa in northeastern Jordan. 

Charred crumbs found in a pair of ancient fire places have been identified as the earliest examples of bread, suggesting it was being prepared long before the dawn of agriculture.

The remains – tiny lumps a few millimetres in size – were found by archaeologists at a site in the Black Desert in north-east Jordan.

Using radio-carbon-dating of charred plant materials found within the hearths, the team discovered the fireplaces were used just over 14,000 years ago.

“Bread has been seen as a product of agriculturist, settled societies, but our evidence from Jordan now basically predates the onset of plant cultivation … by at least 3000 years,” said Dr Tobias Richter, Co-author of the study from the University of Copenhagen, noting that fully-fledged agriculture in the Levant is believed to have emerged around 8000 BC.

“So bread was being made by hunter-gatherer’s before they started to cultivate any plants,” he said.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Richter and colleagues from Denmark and the UK describe how during the excavations between 2012 and 2015 they discovered the crumbs in the fireplaces of a site used by hunter-gatherers known as Natufians, who foraged for wild grains. 

Among the remains, the team excavated small, round tubers of a wetland plant known as club-rush, traces of legumes and plants belonging to the cabbage family, wild cereals including some ground wheat and barley – and 642 small charred lumps.

Analysis of 24 of this lump revealed they are bread-like – with the others expected to be similar.

“They are charred bread crumbs, sort of what you might find at the bottom of your toaster at home – the sort of stuff that falls off when you put it on high power,” said Richter.

Further examination revealed that 15 of the 24 crumbs contain tissues from cereal plants – probably, says Richter, from barley, einkorn wheat or oats.

Some of the crumbs were also found to contain ingredients from other plants, with the team saying club rush tuber is the most likely candidate.

What’s more, the examination of the crumbs suggests the flour used to make the bread might have been sieved, while the team say the lack of an oven means the bread was probably baked in the ashes of the fire, or on a hot stone.

The team say the crumbs appear most likely to be from a sort of unleavened flatbread.

While the newly found crumbs are now the earliest bread remains found so far, taking the title from remains discovered at the site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey and dated to about 9100 years ago, the team say the food might have emerged even earlier.

“Food remains have long been ignored in archaeology, and therefore have not been sufficiently studied,” said Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, 1st author of the study from the University of Copenhagen. “I’m sure that if we look at older sites, we may find bread-like cereal products during the Paleolithic [for example] 25,000 years ago.”

Richter said it is unlikely the bread discovered at the Natufian site was consumed as a staple, given it would have been very labour intensive to gather and process the grains.

While the team suggest the bread could have been made by the hunter-gatherers for their onward journey, they say other evidence adds weight to the idea it could have been part of a feast or ritual event.

Charred bread crumbs were found at a Natufian hunter-gatherer site dating from 14,600 to 11,600 years ago.
Charred bread crumbs were found at a Natufian hunter-gatherer site dating from 14,600 to 11,600 years ago. 

“[The older fireplace] also had a number of gazelle [bones] in it from at least a dozen or more animals as well as waterbird and hare,” said Richter. “So it looks like a bit of a meal [shared] between a larger group of people, like a little feast that was then discarded in the fire place.”

Amy Bogaard, professor of Neolithic and bronze age archaeology at the University of Oxford and who was not involved in the research, described the study as interesting.

“We previously knew that these communities were grinding and preparing plants in various ways, but this study is the 1st to identify actual bread-like remains of this early date,” she said. “ In terms of food history, it suggests that preparation of flatbread-like foods long predates the establishment of agriculture and that farming in this region emerged within a pre-established culture of grinding and bakings.”

While the team have yet to recreate the recipe, Richter says they have tried bread made with club rush tubers, offering a clue as to how the ancient bread might have tasted.

“It tastes a little bit salty, so it is probably not to our particular tastes in the present,” he said.

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