The dawn of bread

1 minute read

Archaeologists working at Shubayqa 1, a site in northeastern Jordan, found tiny fragments of an ancient unleavened bread as they were excavating a hearth. The site was made by people of the Natufian culture, 14,400 years ago. The paper describing the discovery, by Amaia Arranz-Otaegui and coworkers, documents the use of a mixed unleavened dough to make bread more than 4000 years before the introduction of agriculture in this region of the world.

The paper includes a photo of the fireplace and structure where the team found the oldest of the charred bread remains. It is one of the most beautiful site photos I’ve ever seen in an archaeological paper:

Image of the fireplace from Shubayqa 1 from Arranz-Otaegui and coworkers
Figure 2 from Arranz-Otaegui et al. 2018. Original caption: "The site of Shubayqa 1 showing Structure 1 and one of the fireplaces (the oldest one) where the bread-like remains were discovered."

Many of the bread fragments showed evidence of grain from various species. But five of them were a mixture that included tubers from a plant known as the club rush.

Ethnobotanical and experimental evidence indicates club-rush tubers are best consumed as gruel or flour to make bread, instead of boiling or steaming (18, 19). Pure club-rush tuber bread is brittle, crumbly, and flaky, but the addition of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) flour (i.e., gluten) allows for the production of elastic dough that can be pressed onto the walls of a tandir-type oven structure and be baked (18). Evidence for cereal and club-rush tuber preparations have been identified at late Neolithic sites in Turkey (2) and The Netherlands (20). The finds from Shubayqa 1 suggest a considerably earlier date for their dietary use.

It’s a fascinating discovery that adds perspective to the systematic use of various wild plants and food preparation in these semi-nomadic people.