Some excitement accompanied a recent announcement that archaeologists from the University of Copenhagen have discovered fragments of carbonized flatbread in the remains of a fireplace dating back to 14,400 BCE, 4,000 years before the date traditionally associated with the beginning of agriculture.
The site, known as Shubayqa 1, is in the “Black desert” of northeast Jordan. It was utilized by hunter-gatherers belonging to the Natufian culture found in the Levant during the late Epi-Paleolithic period, and includes the remains of two circular structures, one covered by sediment with the other built atop it. The lower structure was sunk into the earth, with a floor paved with flat basalt stones and a small fireplace in the center.
The team of researchers included archaeobotanists, or specialists in the identification of ancient plants. Their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explain how they analyzed charred remains of 24 food fragments found in the lower fireplace, and concluded that a bread-like product had been made from wild einkorn (a type of wheat) and club-rush tubers.
The charred fragments don’t look like a petrified pancake, of course. They are quite small, and identified as a bread-like product only through microscopic analysis that reveals tiny structures showing an identifiable matrix of gas bubbles produced in bread dough.
The findings were announced with headlines such as “Discovery of 14,000-year-old toast suggests bread can be added to Paleo diet,” and “Archaeologists discover bread that predates agriculture by 4,000 years.”
The findings are exciting, and may accurately speak of a period four millennia before agriculture became widespread, but none of the articles I saw acknowledged another fairly recent finding from a periodic settlement of brush huts on the southwestern coast of the Sea of Galilee. There, an analysis of ancient charred grains found sealed anaerobically beneath a thick layer of mud found characteristics of domesticated grain as much as 23,000 years old, much earlier than the traditional date of 10-12,000 years ago for the advent of agriculture (read more about that in a previous blog).
Plant species found there included not only wild emmer wheat, wild barley and wild oats, but also wheat and barley that showed clear signs of domestication. Wild wheat and barley are capable of self-sowing, but when they are planted close together over many seasons, the shape of the seeds changes slightly, locking them together so that they can’t disperse without human help.
Whether it’s Paleolithic farming in the lower Galilee or bread making in Jordan, we have to admire human ingenuity. While we think of these early peoples as exceedingly primitive, they were clearly creative and inventive folk, trying new things and developing new techniques to make life better and survival more likely.
And with every new development, someone had to try it for the first time. Ground grain and mashed tuber patty from the fireplace, anyone?