A team of archaeologists from the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen have discovered the charred remains of a flatbread baked by hunter-gatherers 14,400 years ago, making it the oldest direct evidence of bread found to date and predating the advent of agriculture by more than 4,000 years, according to a report published online July 16 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The archaeological site in which the bread was found is known as Shubayqa 1, which is located in the Black Desert in northeastern Jordan.

“The presence of hundreds of charred food remains in the fireplaces from Shubayqa 1 is an exceptional find, and it has given us the chance to characterize 14,000-year-old food practices,” said Amaia Arranz Otaegui, an archaeobotanist at the University of Copenhagen and lead author of the study. “The 24 remains analyzed in this study show that wild ancestors of domesticated cereals such as barley, einkorn and oat had been ground, sieved and kneaded prior to cooking. The remains are very similar to unleavened flatbreads identified at several Neolithic and Roman sites in Europe and Turkey. So we now know that bread-like products were produced long before the development of farming. The next step is to evaluate if the production and consumption of bread influenced the emergence of plant cultivation and domestication at all.”

University of Copenhagen archaeologist Tobias Richter, who led the excavations at Shubayqa, added, “Natufian hunter-gatherers are of particular interest to us because they lived through a transitional period when people became more sedentary and their diet began to change. Flint sickle blades as well as ground stone tools found at Natufian sites in the Levant have long led archaeologists to suspect that people had begun to exploit plants in a different and perhaps more effective way. But the flat bread found at Shubayqa 1 is the earliest evidence of bread making recovered so far, and it shows that baking was invented before we had plant cultivation. So this evidence confirms some of our ideas. Indeed, it may be that the early and extremely time-consuming production of bread based on wild cereals may have been one of the key driving forces behind the later agricultural revolution where wild cereals were cultivated to provide more convenient sources of food.”

Lara Gonzalez Carratero, an expert on prehistoric bread at the University College London Institute of Archaeology, analyzed the charred food remains using electronic microscopy. In using the electronic microscopy, she said the researchers were able to identify the microstructures and particles of each charred food remain.

“Bread involves labor intensive processing which includes dehusking, grinding of cereals and kneading and baking,” said Dorian Fuller, a professor at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. “That it was produced before farming methods suggests it was seen as special, and the desire to make more of this special food probably contributed to the decision to begin to cultivate cereals. All of this relies on new methodological developments that allow us to identify the remains of bread from very small charred fragments using high magnification.”

The Shubayqa project research was funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark. Permission to excavate was granted by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan.