Roughly 14,400 years ago, a group of Natufian hunter-gatherers assembled around a pair of stone fireplaces to enjoy a feast of gazelle, waterfowl, hare and three or four varieties of mixed-grain flatbread. Now, the remnants of their meal, including charred breadcrumbs similar to the ones found at the bottom of a modern-day toaster, are providing archaeologists with new insights on Stone Age dietary habits—as well as the earliest evidence of bread-making, a practice previously linked to the advent of agriculture some 4,000 years later.
Researchers from the University of Copenhagen, University College London and University of Cambridge discovered the ancient crumbs while excavating a pair of stone fireplaces located at the northeastern Jordanian site of Shubayqa 1 between 2012 and 2015. The team’s findings, newly detailed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that the Natufians, a people that lived in the Eastern Mediterranean from roughly 12,500 to 9,500 B.C., were baking bread centuries before their descendants started creating permanent agricultural settlements.
Lead author Amaia Arranz Otaegui, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen, tells the Washington Post’s Ben Guarino that she spotted the bread remnants while sifting through sediment at a Natufian structure that may have served as a dwelling or ceremonial building. At first, she was unable to identify the crumbs, although she realized they were not seeds, nuts or charred wood. Analysis of 24 charred samples revealed their porous texture, a phenomenon unique to bread, and allowed the archaeologists to further single out tissues from cereal plants such as barley, einkorn wheat and oats.
To make the bread, the Natufians likely began by grinding cereals and club-rush tubers—a starchy root—into a fine flour, Arranz Otaegui explains to BBC News’ Helen Briggs. Next, they mixed the flour with water to produce dough, then baked it in the hot ashes of a fireplace or on a hot flatstone. The final product, Briggs reports, would have been unleavened flatbread comparable to today’s wraps.
According to Guarino, archaeologists previously suspected that ancient farmers domesticated cereal plants, which bakers then turned into bread. The Shubayqa find, however, reverses the timeline, showing that at least some people were making bread from wild grains.
“Indeed, it may be that the early and extremely time-consuming production of bread based on wild cereals may have been one of the key driving forces behind the later agricultural revolution where wild cereals were cultivated to provide more convenient sources of food,” University of Copenhagen archaeologist and study co-author Tobias Richter said in a statement.
The Independent’s David Keys notes that bread-making would have been an impractical activity for the Natufians. Harvesting wild cereals, separating and grinding the seeds, kneading dough and baking it consumed valuable time and energy but offered little nutritional gain in return. This trade-off suggests that the hunter gatherers were moving away from a “purely nutritionally utilitarian [diet] and towards a more culturally, socially and perhaps ideologically determined culinary tradition,” Key writes.
Prior to the Shubayqa discovery, the earliest evidence of bread-making dated to 9,000 years ago. The samples, found in Turkey, were made using flour from domesticated wheat and barley, as well as ground beans such as chickpeas and lentils. Unlike the Natufian flatbreads, the Turkish breads were cooked in an oven, Briggs reports.
The archaeologists are still working on an exact recreation of the Natufians’ bread recipe, but in the meantime, Richter tells the Guardian’s Nicola Davis that they have sampled bread made with the type of club-rush tubers found in the Shubayqa sediment.
“It tastes a little bit salty, so it is probably not to our particular tastes in the present,” Richter concludes.