Some 4,000 years before domesticated agriculture, hunter-gatherers baked their own bread, according to a discovery at an archaeological site in northeastern Jordan.

Researchers have discovered the charred remains of a flatbread baked around 14,400 years ago, the oldest direct evidence of bread found to date, predating the advent of agriculture by at least 4,000 years. The findings suggest that bread production based on wild cereals may have encouraged hunter-gatherers to cultivate cereals, and thus contributed to the agricultural revolution in the Neolithic period.

The 24 charred food remains are from a 14,400-year-old Natufian hunter-gatherer site - a site known as Shubayqa 1 located in the Black Desert in northeastern Jordan. It shows 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 and demonstrates bread-like products were produced long before the development of farming.  

Dr. Amaia Arranz-Otaegui and Ali Shakaiteer sampling cereals in the Shubayqa area. Photo: Joe Roe

"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,  said excavation leader and University of Copenhagen archaeologist Tobias Richter. "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."

Charred remains under the microscope

Bread involves labor intensive processing which includes dehusking, grinding of cereals and kneading and baking. 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.