Archaeologists uncover oldest evidence of bread-making at Shubayqa 1 in northeastern Jordan
Breads of all forms and tastes are cross-cultural staples of the human diet commonly used in religious ritual or as a delicious complement to any meal. The origins of bread-making in prehistory, however, remain complicated by poor preservation and by the sheer abundance of forms and methods of creation, often making it difficult for archaeobotanists to determine what can and cannot be considered bread.
Relying on modern terminology to describe ancient culinary phenomena makes an appropriate categorization of ancient bread types quite difficult. Not just the types of cereals used, but the process and method by which the grains were processed and refined, the ingredients mixed, and the doughs fired all effect the quality and type of the final product.
As early as the Upper Paleolithic Period in western Asia (ca. 23,000 cal BP [calibrated years before the present]), hunter-gatherer groups were producing flour from naturally-growing wild grasses like wheat and barley. By the Natufian period (14,600–11,700 cal BP), hunter-gatherers were making porridges and groats from non-domesticated grasses. Until recently, however, there has been no evidence of cereal-based breads prior to the later emergence of agriculture.
According to a recent publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, archaeologists from a consortium of institutions—including the University of Copenhagen and University College London—may have discovered such evidence.1 Between 2012 and 2015, the team led by Copenhagen’s Tobias Richter carried out a series of excavations at the Natufian site of Shubayqa I in northeastern Jordan in a region known as the Black Desert. The region was not always so arid and was in prehistory likely lush with natural grasses and cereals that could be harvested and rendered into flours.
Archaeobotanical analysis at the site has focused on two superseding in situ basalt fireplace installations in one of the settlement’s two ancient structures, appropriately named “structure 1.” After the abandonment of the older fireplace, sometime later, inhabitants reconstructed another fire installation in close proximity to the one from the previous phase. Carbon 14 dating results suggest the installations were in use sometime between 14,400–14,200 cal BP, making Shubayqa 1 one of the earliest known Natufian sites in southwest Asia.
The team collected from the fireplaces 24 samples of what they call “bread-like” remains after identifying in the samples specific features that characterize cereal-based breads.
“We have established a new set of criteria to identify flat bread, dough- and porridge-like products in the archaeological record,” said Lara Gonzalez Carratero of the Institute of Archaeology at UCL.
The new criteria include an analysis of the quality of “voids” on the surface of the bread, which can speak to the particular particle components of the sample and the method of its processing and baking. Gonzalez Carratero led the lab analysis of the samples, performing low-magnification microscopy—to study the physical texture, size, and shape of the samples—and scanning electronic microscopy (SEM)—to identify the particular plant particles of each sample.
Most of the bread samples were about 4.4 mm wide by 5.7 in length and usually no more than 2.5 mm high, suggesting some sort of flatbread. SEM results reveal that some samples contain a mixture of cereal and tubers while other samples are purely cereal-based—perhaps wheat, rye, millet, oat, or barley. Gonzalez Carratero also found evidence that the grains were ground prior to cooking, usually indicative of processes such as dehusking or flour-making. The diversity and combined use of various cereals and complementary tubers indicate that the inhabitants of Shubayqa 1 likely sourced their grains from a variety of naturally-growing grasses.
Notably absent from the Shubayqa 1 breads are whole grains or cereal chaff, which characterized later breads in the region. Instead, the archaeologists think that the breads were made from a product very similar to modern, fine-grain flours—the texture of which would have been controlled through a process of repeated milling, sieving, and winnowing the cereals.
After the various cereals were harvested and gathered, they would have been ground down to remove impurities, such as chaff, stalks, and stems. A prevalence of hand-stones and other grind stones at the site indicate that this was a commonplace practice among the population and that a significant amount of labor went into the development of the bread flour. After grinding, the product would have been sieved, milled, and reground.
Analysis of the Shubayqa 1 breads revealed an absence of starch in a majority of the samples, which would be expected from repeated sieving and grinding into a fine flour. After rendering a flour product, water would be mixed in to produce a dough. Compared to today’s porous doughs made of wheat flour, the dough at Shubayqa 1 would have been rather dense because the meticulous, repeated process of grinding and sieving produces a finer flour without many impurities.
The inhabitants of Shubayqa 1 invested a significant amount of time producing their breads; Richter’s team suggests that the labor involved in harvesting, processing, and baking the breads would not have been worth the nutritional dividend. Previously, archaeologists hypothesized that systematic bread-making only developed later during the Neolithic Revolution because cereal domestication significantly lessened the labor that went into the bread-making process.
Since the article was first published, a few hypotheses have circulated as to why the inhabitants of Shubayqa 1 went through all the trouble to harvest wild cereals to make bread. Along with other pre-agricultural products like beer, bread may have first been produced for “feasting behavior,” serving some sort of ritual or cultural component of a ceremony of consumption. Dorian Fuller, an expert on prehistoric cereals at UCL said that the discovery reveals that “food became something that was valued for more than just calories.”
David Keys of The Independent goes one step further and suggests that the baking of bread may be “culturally, socially and perhaps ideologically” motivated. He goes on to posit that early bread making at Shubayqa 1 “represents the genesis of the long-standing religious importance of bread consumption in (the Middle East).”
I am, however, rather hesitant to characterize the discovery at Shubayqa 1 as a revolutionary cultural development; instead it is likely that the making of bread at this site about 14,400 years ago initially began as a utilitarian practice and then gradually emerged as a critical component of ceremonial practice. The PNAS article notes that the flatbreads at the site were “rather light, nutritional, and easily transportable foodstuff that can additionally be stored dried for several months.” Dietary variability and preparedness would have been critical for a semi-mobile population like that at Shubayqa 1. The hunter-gather nature of the inhabitants would have necessitated they carry foodstuffs with them while hunting and gathering; portable flatbreads present a tasty option.
Flatbreads are also a versatile and complementary nutritional option and would have been eaten alongside and baked with other foods, including meats, tubers, and other dietary staples. The lack of oven installations dedicated to baking bread at the site and the significant labor costs likely meant that cereal-made breads were not a daily staple during the Natufian period. Commonplace bread-making would not take place until ca. 10,000 cal BP, when some populations in the region began exploiting cereals through domestication and the developed agricultural tools like sickles.
The flatbreads at Shubayqa 1 are thus a unique and fascinating outlier in the long and obfuscated history of prehistoric food production. Many questions remain. Were other settlements in the region also occasionally producing cereal breads? How did bread-making influence the development of domestication and agriculture? What was the role of cereal breads in Natufian society and just how prevalent were they?
“The next step is to evaluate if the production and consumption of bread influenced the emergence of plant cultivation and domestication at all,” said University of Copenhagen archaeobotanist Amaia Arranz Otaegui.
The team looks forward to continuing their research on the early development of bread production in the prehistoric world. The Danish Council for Independent Research awarded Richter and his team a grant to continue their work into the Natufian occupation in the Black Desert.
“Building on our research into early bread, this will in the future give us a better idea why certain ingredients were favored over others and were eventually selected for cultivation,” said Richter.
Samuel DeWitt Pfister is a Graduate M.A. Student in the Department of Anthropology at The George Washington University.
1. Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, Lara Gonzalez Carretero, Monica N. Ramsey, Dorian Q. Fuller, and Tobias Richter, “Archaeobotanical evidence reveals the origins of bread 14,400 years ago in northeastern Jordan,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (July 16, 2018).
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