The charred remains of a 14,500-year-old pita-like flatbread, made from grinding together cereals and tubers, were discovered in a stone fireplace in the Black Desert in Jordan, according to a study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Though archeologists and historians have long tied the first baking of bread to the advent of agriculture in the Neolithic era, the new find predates that by more than 5,000 years.
Despite the current popularity of low-carb diets, bread remains one of the most versatile and widely consumed food staples around the world. Yet we still know relatively little about its origins. Until now, no evidence of bread-making had been found from before the emergence of the earliest farming societies, and the oldest-known bread came from a 9,100-year-old site in Turkey.
At its most basic, making bread means mixing flour and water to create a dough or batter, then baking, frying or steaming the mixture. The flatbread discovered at the Black Desert site was made from wild cereals like einkorn, barley or oats, which were ground into flour along with tubers from Bolboschoenus glaucus (aka club-rush or bulrush), a plant that grew in shallow waters.
The site belonged to a group of Stone Age hunter-gatherers called the Natufians, who began to transition from a nomadic lifestyle to a more settled, sedentary one. Archeologists previously uncovered considerable evidence there about the Natufians’ diet of meat—including gazelles, hares and birds—and plants. They cooked their food, including the flatbread, in large round fireplaces built on the floor of their huts with flat basalt stones.
The researchers have begun trying to recreate the bread, and have been able to use the club-rush tubers to make flour—with mixed results. “The taste of the tubers is quite gritty and salty,” the study’s lead author, Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, a postdoctoral researcher in archaeobotany at the University of Copenhagen, told Reuters. “But it is a bit sweet as well.”
Because of where they found the bread, Arranz-Otaegui and her colleagues think the Natufians could have made the bread shortly before they left the site, as a light, nutritious and highly portable snack. On the other hand, the relatively labor-intensive method used to make it (dehusking and grinding cereals, kneading the dough and baking) suggests the Natufians might have reserved the bread for feasts held on special occasions.
“The significance of this bread is that it shows investment of extra effort into making food that has mixed ingredients,” Dorian Fuller, another co-author of the study, told BBC News. “That implies that bread played a special role for special occasions.” From there, Fuller said, it may have been a logical process of deciding to plant and domesticate cereals such as wheat and barley, which “were species that already had a special place in terms of special foods.”