Discovered: The World’s Oldest Bread

Charred remains of a flatbread baked about 14,500 years ago in a stone fireplace at a site in northeastern Jordan have given researchers a delectable surprise: people began making bread, a vital staple food, thousands of years before they developed agriculture.

No matter how you slice it, the discovery detailed on Monday shows that hunter-gatherers in the Eastern Mediterranean achieved the cultural milestone of bread-making far earlier than previously known, more than 4,000 years before plant cultivation took root.

The flatbread, likely unleavened and somewhat resembling pita bread, was fashioned from wild cereals such as barley, einkorn or oats, as well as tubers from an aquatic papyrus relative that had been ground into flour.

It was made by a culture called the Natufians, who had begun to embrace a sedentary rather than nomadic lifestyle, and was found at a Black Desert archeological site.

“The presence of bread at a site of this age is exceptional,” said Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, a University of Copenhagen postdoctoral researcher in archeobotany and lead author of the research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Arranz-Otaegui said until now the origins of bread had been associated with early farming societies that cultivated cereals and legumes. The previous oldest evidence of bread came from a 9,100-year-old site in Turkey.

Incentive to farm?

“We now have to assess whether there was a relationship between bread production and the origins of agriculture,” Arranz-Otaegui said. “It is possible that bread may have provided an incentive for people to take up plant cultivation and farming, if it became a desirable or much-sought-after food.”

University of Copenhagen archeologist and study co-author Tobias Richter pointed to the nutritional implications of adding bread to the diet. “Bread provides us with an important source of carbohydrates and nutrients, including B vitamins, iron and magnesium, as well as fibre,” Richter said.

Abundant evidence from the site indicated the Natufians had a meat- and plant-based diet. The round floor fireplaces, made from flat basalt stones and measuring about a metre in diameter, were located in the middle of huts.

Arranz-Otaegui said the researchers have begun the process of trying to reproduce the bread, and succeeded in making flour from the type of tubers used in the prehistoric recipe. But it might have been an acquired taste.

“The taste of the tubers,” Arranz-Otaegui said, “is quite gritty and salty. But it is a bit sweet as well.”

Sourdough Breads

Sourdough breads get their name from the fact that both the dough and the bread are acidic. The acidity, along with other distinctive flavour components, is produced by bacteria that grow in the dough along with various yeasts. The bacteria often include some of the same lactic acid bacteria that make milk into yogurt and buttermilk. The leavening for this kind of bread begins as a “wild” starter, a mixture of whatever microbes happen to be on the grain and the in the air and other ingredients when flour was mixed with water. The mixture of yeasts and bacteria is then perpetuated by saving a portion of the dough to leaven the next batch of bread.

The first breads probably resembled modern sourdoughs, and bread in much of the world is made with sourdough starters that give distinctive regional flavours. The bacteria somehow delay starch retrogradation and staling, and the acids they produce make the bread resistant to spoilage microbes; so sourdough breads are especially flavourful and keep well. Because browning reactions are slowed in acid conditions, sourdough breads tend to be lighter in colour than straight yeasts breads, and their flavour less toasty.

It isn’t easy to make good bread with sourdough cultures. There are two good reasons for this. One is that the bacteria grow faster than the yeasts, almost always outnumbering them by factors of a hundred of a thousand, and inhibit the yeasts’ gas production: so sourdough breads often don’t rise well. The other is that acid conditions and bacterial protein-digesting enzymes weaken the dough gluten, which makes it less elastic and the resulting bread more dense.

Harold McGee
“On Food and Cooking; The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
pg 544

Corn Tortillas

Adoption of the nixtamalization process did not accompany the grain to Europe and beyond, perhaps because the Europeans already had more efficient milling processes for hulling grain mechanically. Without alkaline processing, maize is a much less beneficial foodstuff, and malnutrition struck many areas where it became a dominant food crop. In the nineteenth century, pellagra epidemics were recorded in France, Italy, and Egypt, and kwashiorkor hit parts of Africa where maize had become a dietary staple.