The 16th century physician, Thomas Moffett, said “Who was the first Authour or Inventer of making Bread, I will not take upon me to determine” (Moffett, 237). Well, I’m going to try to do just that. To find the first load we need to go back. Way back. Back to the old stone age, the paleolithic. In this episode we will dig into the earliest evidence of bread as we attempt to find the first loaf.
The paleolithic period is the longest stretch on the human timeline starting when tools first appeared on the scene, about three million years ago, up to the beginning of the Neolithic revolution, about 12,000 years ago. That means that this one episode will cover more than three million years. The remainder of the episodes in this series will cover the ensuing 12,000 years. Why would I cram three million years of history into a single episode? Well, there isn’t really all that much known. But what we do know is very interesting!
Hello friends, I’m Jae. I’ll be your host as we take a Journey into History, Through the Eyes of Bread. In the last Episode we looked at bread as the original influencer. This is episode two, Finding the First Loaf.
Before we get out our stone tools, I’d like to let you know that you can find more about eyes of bread at eyesofbread.org. If you like this series, it is very helpful to me if you can like and subscribe. If you don’t like it, feel free to dislike it. Either way, I’d love to get your comments below.
Our quest for this episode is to find the first loaf. To do this, we need to go back a long time. Into what is called the Stone Age. In order to make bread we need to make tools, harvest grain, and control fire. We will be sifting through the artifacts of the stone age to find evidence of these three advances.
I will be breaking the stone age into two segments. Lithic means “stone like” and we can also call the stone age the lithic age. Paleo means “old” so Palieolithic is the Old Stone Age. Neo means new, so the new stone age is the Neolithic. Some also use the term mesolithic. Meso meaning middle. In this podcast, I will use just the two terms. Paleolithic and neolithic.
You may also hear the term Pleistocene. Pleistocene is a geologic term referring to the most recent ice age which started about 2.6 million years ago and ended about 12,000 years ago. The paleolithic roughly equates to this same period of time as pleistocene, but refers to the habits of man, while pleistocene refers to the habits of the earth.
The paleolithic period began when the first hominid used the first stone tool. You could say that the lithic age began at different times for different groups of people, but we will not make that distinction. For this show we will begin the stone age with the first tool ever. However, this is not true with any other age. Ages for humans are dependent on the tools they are currently using. Some groups of people came out of the stone age earlier or later than other groups. This does not mean the groups who advanced quicker are smarter or better, they are just different.
The Paleolithic is also broken into multiple segments: Lower, Middle and Upper Paleolithic. The Lower Paleolithic can be thought of as the Old Old Stone age. This starts with the introduction of stone tools. The advent of tools was the first stop on our journey, so we need to go to the very beginning of the Paleolithic. Like so many things in history there is much discussion about when this actually was.
The first tool was long attributed to Homo habilis, also called the Handy Man. Their use of tools was what differentiated humans from animals. No other animal uses tools. Only us highly advanced humans have the ability to use tools. Or so we thought. We are after all very egocentric.
We now see evidence of tool use in many animals. Apes use sticks to get ants out of an ant mound for a snack. Otters use rocks to break open clams. Even birds have been known to use tools such as the crows who made compound tools in Auguste von Bayern’s research (von Bayern). A compound tool is taking two items and combining them together to make a single tool. In the case of von Bayern’s crows this was putting two parts together to make a longer tool for getting at the food that was out of their reach. Finding how animals have used tools has challenged many beliefs about what makes a human, human.
If even crows make tools, it makes sense that the superior human would have been making tools for a long time. In fact, current evidence of stone tool use dates back to 3.3 million years. It appears that for more than half a million years prior to the first member of the Homo genus there were hominids using tools.
In West Turkana, Kenya there is an archaeological site referred to as Lomekwi 3. This site has been dated to over three million years ago and is associated with Australopithecines. Australopithecines were a pre-human hominid genus consisting of several species that may be ancestors of the homo genus that humans belong to. Many have equated these early hominids to apes, but this is not accurate.
Back in the 1950s Dr. Raymond A. Dart of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa argued that comparing Australopithecines to Apes was very inaccurate. Yes, they had smaller brain cavities than most modern men, but they were in the same range as many homo sapiens with smaller brain cavities even today. They used the teeth of their prey, their bones, and more to make tools. He described them as “almost human” (Australopithecines, 92). These almost humans probably were both hunter and hunted. Many believe that they had no language beyond simple gestures and grunts, however, some believe they may have sung, like birds do, for why would language have evolved if there was not a reason for the sounds in the first place (Livingstone)?
The Lomekwi 3 site includes many flaked stone tools showing that hominids used tools much earlier than originally thought. More than half a million years earlier. And these tools are not your simple beaters and mashers that are commonly portrayed as the earliest tools. Early man was using more than just a club to beat and a rock to mash, but was flaking off sharp edged blades to cut with (Lewis).
But, the most important question is… Did they eat bread? The evidence points to…. no…. They may have eaten some grains, but these would not have been made into bread first. Most likely they would have been plucked off the plant and chewed on directly. While they used tools, there is no evidence of them using tools to grind grain. Or even harvesting grain. Or controlling fire for that matter.
Let’s continue our quest for the first bread eater and look for the first fire. Although we now know Homo habilis was not the first animals to use tools, they are still an important milestone in human evolution. But were they the first bread eaters?
Homo habilis burst into the minds of modern man in the early 1959 when Louis and Mary Leaky uncovered two teeth. In 1960 they discovered a boy’s skeleton at the same site. By 1964 they had enough to say that this was a new species, and one they put into the Homo genus.
This was the first hominid to fill the gap between the Australopithecines and Modern Man (Clark). As you can imagine, there was a lot of disagreement. Many argued that our Handy Man was nothing more than a slightly more advanced Australopithecus. Modern Man of course is the only real man!
Eventually our handy man was placed firmly in the Homo genus. Although there are still attempts to this day to push him back down, saying he is not advanced enough to be put in the same genus as modern man.
Homo habilis was much the same size and shape as the earlier Australopithecines. Smaller than modern man, with a smaller brain case. He walked on two legs and was found with tools. In fact, he was a big tool user. His jaw and brow ridges were smaller than australopithecus and looked more like a modern man. He had a more prominent forehead as well. While Homo habilis probably had the ability to make bread, there is just no evidence that he did. He did not likely have the ability to control fire, which is one of the prerequisites for bread making.
So, let’s move on to Homo erectus. Homo erectus is the next major evolutionary track on our road to the advent of bread. Homo erectus began to look and walk more like modern human. They hunted in groups to bring down large game, such as elephants. With more complex tools, more upright walking, better hunting techniques, and more, Homo erectus is much more like modern man than previous hominids. Even those that wanted to put Homo habilis into the australopithecus genus agree that Homo erectus is a part of the homo genus.
There is some evidence that Homo erectus controlled fire. In looking at fire evidence of the time, there are animal, and sometimes hominid bones nearby, but this does not say without a doubt that the fire was man made. Some have argued that the temperature needed to form these marks are consistent with camp fires, while others state that these conditions can also be found in nature. It is also possible that the fire was started closer to modern times and those bones were buried underneath, making it seem as if there was an association when none exists (James and Gowlett). Basically this means that while Homo erectus, or even earlier hominids, MAY have controlled fire, we can not say unequivocally that they did.
However, John Gowlett points out that modern man needs cooked food. As our teeth got smaller and our brains larger we needed the easier to consume and higher usable energy of cooked foods (Gowlett, 3-4). This along with the fact that fire does not hold up to time like hard artifacts do. Evidence of fire is just not seen as much the farther back we go, even if it is there (Gowlett, 4-5). So it is likely that Homo erectus did control fire.
While it may have well been Neaderthals (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) that first discovered fire, we know that when we find something in the record, it has likely been around for dozens, or hundred, or even hundreds of thousands of years before. Like the evidence for the first flaked tools was pushed back more than half a million years with the finds at Lomekwi 3 there may well be evidence that pushes back the use of fire by hominids significantly. I’m personally ready to give credit for controlling fire to Homo erectus.
While some will argue with me that we have not yet found the first fire, and that the first fire belongs to Homo sapiens, or Neanderthals, let’s move on to finding the first harvest and give the first fire to homo erectus.
Homo erectus split into several evolutionary tracts. The Neanderthals and Modern Man are the most well known of these evolutions. We should also look at another group, the Denisovan as well.
Neanderthals are so named because they were first found in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany. Since then various discoveries have been found throughout Europe and central Asia. Neanderthals were much like the stereotypic cave man, robust with big bones, large brow ridge, wide chest, short and powerful limbs. They were well adapted for the colder climates and were great hunters. They had relatively sophisticated tools, in comparison to those of earlier man (Benerji, 1394). They had control of fire, and many believe they were the first hominid to control fire (James).
The Denisovan were much like Neanderthals, but Neanderthals were found in Europe and Denisovans in Asia. We know very little about what this group looked like, as we have very little physical evidence. Most of what we do know is based on teeth remains found in the Denisova caves in Siberia. Anthropologists were, however, able to collect DNA and have some evidence from this.
The current evidence shows that these homonids were not likely direct human ancestors, based on mitochondrial DNA analysis (Benerji, 1394). However, there is also recent evidence that shows that up to 5% of DNA of some human populations show Neanderthal or Denisovan ancestry (Hawks, 437).
Let’s move on to the Neanderthal sister species: Homo sapien. That is us, but let’s focus on early modern man, that is us but a long time ago.
Ehud Weiss and team examined charred remains at the 23,000 year old camp called Oholo II, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Well, it was on the shore, but as the ice age ended, the water levels rose, and it was flooded. Droughts and pumping caused it to be exposed from 1989-1991 and again from 1999-2001. This site provided a wealth of information as the site had been unexposed and under the sea since its abandonment 23,000 years ago (Weiss).
Weiss and team examined 90,000 plant remains from this village. Of these all but 152 were charred. That is, they had been cooked. It appears that small grained grasses were an important part of the diets of these early people. So, by this point, not only does man have knowledge of grain, it appears to be an important part of the diet. At least for those in this one village. Does this mean that they made bread? Well, we do not have any direct evidence of bread making, but it is possible.
What about the tools of the trade? Something to grind the grain into flour, and an oven to bake it in? Well, we can bake bread on a rock by a campfire, or wrapped in leaves in the coals after the fire has died down. As I mentioned before, evidence of a campfire is hard to find in the archaeological record. We will talk about the oldest known bread oven in episode 3.
By the time that the people of Oholo II had been cooking their grains, food processing was known throughout Europe. Grindstones were a well known tool throughout the period. While it has often been thought that early man survived mainly by hunting, it is also known that too much meat can be dangerous for man. Anna Revedin and team examined up to 30,000 year old grind stones from three sites in Italy, Russia, and the Czech Republic. They found flour residue on these tools, including that of Cattails and Ferns. While these were the most found, that does not make them the most used, as the last ground item will be most prevalent (Revedin, 18818-18819).
We have flour, we have fire, we have the tools. We know people were using grains. The only thing we are missing is direct evidence of bread making. I think that with all this indirect evidence it is clear that man was making bread in the late paleolithic. But perhaps they were grinding up the grain to make flour in order to make gruel. But imagine this.
You have had a great season. You have collected plenty of cat tails, ferns, seeds, nuts, and so much more. You have cooked them, peeled them, and have them ready for eating. You have enough to save for the winter. Your child comes along and sees some seeds that were not put away. She grabs them, puts it into the mortar and starts to grind with the pestle. These grind stones quickly turn these seeds into flour. You have extra, so you don’t mind her playing with some, so you watch and smile at her joy.
She adds a little water to it and watches what happens. Rolling around her new invention, she molds it and has the earliest form of play-do. She is delighted, but soon becomes tired. She flattens it, puts it by the dying embers and lays down and falls asleep. You stay up chatting with the tribe and after a short time you smell something. It smells good. You look around, wondering what has caused it. You realize that your child’s toy is causing the smell. Picking it up, you take a small taste of it and pass it around to the others. One woman has a bowl of soup next to her and breaks off a small piece of the bread, dunking it in the soup. You all enjoy this new invention.
Like Thomas Moffett said, No one really knows how bread was invented. We probably will never know. Even if we do develop time travel, finding the exact moment when bread was first made and how it was passed through the world to be the staple food it is today would not be possible. The best we can do is look at the evidence, make educated guesses, and have some fun with it.
Keep in mind that there are many species of hominids that I could not cover in a short podcast. For much more on evolution and where man came from, I suggest listening to Origin Stories. For a link to Origin Stories, as well as all the sources I used for this episode, please find me at eyesofbread.org. You can also find me on Instagram at mxprofessorl. Be sure to like and subscribe.
Next time: The Neolithic Revolution: Here we get to the first direct evidence of bread making.
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