Origins of bread found 14,400 years ago in Jordan

Scientists have found the remnants of a meal shared by a group of Natufian hunter-gatherers around 14,400 years ago. They noted the expected varieties of meat including those from a gazelle, waterfowl and hare and were surprised with three to four types of flat bread made up of mixed grain.

Scanning electron microscope images of bread-like remains from Shubayqa 1. (A) Sample number 6 showing the typical porous matrix of bread with small closed voids. (B) Detail of an aleurone layer from sample number 17 (at least single celled). (C) Sample number 12 showing vascular tissue, the arrow marks the xylem vessels in longitudinal section. Image Credit: PNAS
Scanning electron microscope images of bread-like remains from Shubayqa 1. (A) Sample number 6 showing the typical porous matrix of bread with small closed voids. (B) Detail of an aleurone layer from sample number 17 (at least single celled). (C) Sample number 12 showing vascular tissue, the arrow marks the xylem vessels in longitudinal section. Image Credit: PNAS

This gives the archaeologists a picture of the dietary habits in the Stone Age and also reveals that bread making was practiced even before the rise of agriculture some 4,000 years after the time of this meal.

Researchers belonging to the University of Copenhagen, University College London and University of Cambridge worked to excavate a couple of stone fireplaces at the northeastern Jordanian site of Shubayqa 1 between 2012 and 2015. They found the remnants of this meal at the excavation site and have published their findings in a study in the latest issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers write that Nstufians were people who lived in the Eastern Mediterranean region between 12,500 and 9,500 B.C. approximately. They were baking bread several hundreds of centuries before their descendants created permanent settlements where they could grow crops.

The study leader Amaia Arranz Otaegui, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen said that they stumbled upon the crumbs and initially thought the bread crumbs were nuts or seeds or charred wood. They went on to analyse 24 of the charred samples she said to discover the samples had a porous texture which is uniquely found in bread.

She explained that thereafter they found tissues similar to rye, millets, barley, wheat, root tubers and einkorn in the charred remains using scanning electron microscope and were certain that these were bread crumbs made from these cereals. She speculated that these cereals could have been grinded along with club rush tubers which are a form of starchy roots.

The final mixture mostly likely resulted in a fine dough that would be mixed with water to form a dough. This dough most likely was baked on a fire place or on a hot flat stone to produce something similar to unleavened flatbread.

Arranz Otaegui says that this study shows that much before actual agriculture was in place people were making bread from wild grains. University of Copenhagen archaeologist and study co-author Tobias Richter in a statement said that it is possible that making bread from wild grains was time consuming and tedious and this prompted the advent of agricultural revolution where these wild grains could be grown and cultivated to provide a more convenient source of staple grains and food.

Before this, an earlier archaeological find dates bread making to around 9,000 years back. An excavation in Turkey shows use of flour and bread making from wheat, barley, ground beans, chickpeas and lentils. These breads were cooked in an oven unlike the present find that finds flatbreads cooked on hot stones or over fireplaces.

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