Second to language, bread is the most influential innovation in human history. Without this innovation, many innovations we have now would not exist. Bread is seen is nearly every culture around the world. Bread has been currency for many peoples, and is slang for money in English. Bread has a long history tracing back many thousands of years.
The Natufian Culture is the oldest group known to make “bread-like” food. The Egyptians get credit for perfecting leavened bread. There were likely other steps that the archaeological record will reveal over time.
While we cannot say for sure who made the first bread, we can look at the archaeological record for evidence showing us when the latest it could have occurred was. To make bread we need evidence of use of fire to cook, harvesting of wheat, and grinding of grain. For a detailed look into this early archaeological evidence, check out my Finding the First Loaf Podcast.
It all started when hunter gatherers gathered some grain, ground it up, added flour, and baked it. From there it remained the same for a few thousand years before someone left it out and it was infected with some wild yeast. This caused it to fluff up making the wonderful air pockets that leavened breads are known for. Let’s look at the archaeological record for more.
The Natufian Culture and the First Direct Evidence of Bread
In Jordan there is an archaeological site referred to as Shubayqa 1 that has two firepits. In these firepits archaeologists found the undisturbed remains of the users last meal before abandoning it. Radio carbon dating puts these remains at 14,400 years ago, or about 12,400 B.C.E. Mixed in with these remains they found 24 “bread like” food items. (Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, et al)
Of the 24 fragments, 15 of the to be made of cereal grains (like wheat, rye, and oats). This is the basis for modern breads. It was likely then mixed with water and baked, either in the ashes, making ash bread, or on the rocks on the side of the pit like one would in a tandoori oven, like I describe in this article.
While it is clear that this “bread” was not like the breads we eat today, this is the very first evidence of bread. We may well find more evidence as archaeologist continue to excavate different sites, but we now know that “bread like” food as existed for at least 14,400 years.
Which Came First, the Bread or the Beer?
Before this new evidence, the Natufian’s were still credited as the first bread makers. But starting in the 1950s there was a discussion about which came first, leavened bread or beer. Both use grain, water, and yeast to produce their unique properties. The tools used for them are the same. And both are used to a large degree in early cultures. (Braidwood)
I consider these to be sister products, as they are closely related. Just the alcohol is cooked off during the baking of bread, and is kept in beer, which also has a lot more liquid and ferments much longer. But the question remains. Which was the impetus for full scale agriculture? Wanting more grain to make bread? Or more grain to make beer?
Full Scale Agriculture and Bread
While evidence for agriculture can be seen as far back as 23,000 years ago (Snir; Weiss), full scale agriculture does not start to be seen until 10,000-12,000 years ago. Many settlements, and later cities start to show up in the Fertile Crescent of Near East Asia, the Indus Valley of India and along the Yellow River in China.
With people coming together, it makes full scale agriculture possible. A single person tending a small patch of vegetables is possible, particularly with modern tools. But this was the stone age, and there were no seed stores. The wild plants were also not as easy to work with as modern ones.
They did get the hang of agriculture and began domesticating these crops. A favorite crop to domesticate was grain. In Egypt the favorite was emmer wheat. Other cereal grains gained preference in other parts of the fertile crescent. In the Indus Valley, rice became a favorite, and millet was preferred in China.
These grains take a lot of work to plant, grow, and harvest. This takes a large population to work and it was not uncommon to have dozens of people working in the fields during planting and harvest times. Many of these people would then go on to work on other projects, such as building the grand architecture.
Egypt and the Perfecting of Sourdough
There is a fair amount of evidence that some of these groups may have used wild yeast to leaven their breads. That is leaving the dough out for a day or two while the natural yeast in the air infects the dough. This yeast then eats the sugars, farting out alcohol. The alcohol creates little pockets of air and poof, leavened bread.
When baked, the yeast is killed and the alcohol escapes and is baked off. This leaves the tasty bread that we are used to seeing on the shelves of the local bakery. But the Egyptians were not happy with relying on unreliable wild yeasts.
Egypt soon was making bread, keeping a piece of the dough, and holding it aside. They would grow this “starter” and pull off a piece to add into the next loaf. They could better control the yeast they used. The Egyptian ovens also became more complex. They even had early loaf pans.
Arranz-Otaegui, A., Carretero, L. G., Ramsey, M. N., Fuller, D. Q., 傅稻镰, & Richter, T. (2018). Archaeobotanical evidence reveals the origins of bread 14,400 years ago in northeastern Jordan. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(31), 7925–7930. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26529356
Braidwood, R. J., Sauer, J. D., Helbaek, H., Mangelsdorf, P. C., Cutler, H. C., Coon, C. S., Linton, R., Steward, J., & Oppenheim, A. L. (1953). Symposium: Did Man Once Live by Beer Alone? American Anthropologist, 55(4), 515–526. http://www.jstor.org/stable/663781
Snir A, Nadel D, Groman-Yaroslavski I, Melamed Y, Sternberg M, Bar-Yosef O, et al. (2015) The Origin of Cultivation and Proto-Weeds, Long Before Neolithic Farming. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0131422. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0131422
Weiss, E., Kislev, M. E., Simchoni, O., & Nadel, D. (2004). Small-Grained Wild Grasses as Staple Food at the 23 000-Year-Old Site of Ohalo II, Israel. Economic Botany, 58, S125–S134. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4256914