While Egypt was not the first bread maker, or may not have been the first maker of leavened bread, the improvements to the bread making process that Egypt made brought bread to be the star it now is in much of the world.
As I discussed in my post on The First Breads, the Natufians are the first people to show in the archaeological record as having made bread. However, their bread was unleavened, and there is no evidence that leavening was used for another 5000 years.
Most archaeologists point at Egypt as the first makers of leavened bread. There is evidence of this in their paintings, reliefs, and other art. There is mention of bread in some writings. And even bread remains have been found. It is clear that they were one of the first makers of leavened bread.
Egypt may have been the first maker of leavened bread, but it also may have been the Sumerians. It also could have been another group that we do not know about.
Sumerian Bread: Which Came First, Bread or Beer?
There is reference to bread being used to make beer, called bappir, in early Sumerian texts. The bread was crumbled and mixed with water and malt with a sweetener such as honey or dates before it was allowed to ferment. This bread does not seem to have been eaten.
The making of beer from bread led to the discussion of which came first, bread or beer? The earliest known texts that reference bread and beer talk of bread as being an ingredient in beer. They do not talk of the bread as being eaten. In fact, those that have reproduced the bread feel that it would only be good to eat in times of famine when there was nothing better.
Bread and brew are cognate in English. This means that they come from the same root word. Some believe that this is because they use similar processes with yeast to make them have their distinct bubbly characteristics. Others, such as me, believe that the proto-Indo-European speaking people (the language group that accounts for most of the European and Near East/Indian languages) used bread to make beer. Bread being the most important ingredient in their beer was synonymous with beer.
While the Sumerians obviously understood fermentation with how they made the beer, did they understand leavening of bread? Did the bread also contain yeast to make it rise? The bread used to make their bappir does not appear to have been yeasted. This early bread appears to be primarily for brewing, and not for eating. While the Sumerians did make bread, and may have been the first full scale brewers, they probably did not make yeasty bread, at least not on a large scale.
Egypt and the Perfection of Leavened Breads
Most archaeologists agree that Egypt was the likely beginning of leavened bread. While leavened bread may have existed before this, Egypt perfected leavened bread.
To see what leavening would have been like prior to Egypt’s improvements, lets take a look at this possibility.
You have made some dough for your unleavened bread. You are about to put it into the fire when you are called away. You have a lengthy conversation, forgetting about the dough. By the time you return, your oven has cooled, and you are tired. Leaving the dough you go to bed.
During the night some wild yeast land on the dough, and infect it. After a while they begin to eat at the sugars and reproduce quicker than tribbles. As they eat these sugars they fart out alcohol, which produces tiny air pockets in the dough. The next day you see that the dough has bubbles, and has doubled in size.
You know a little about fermentation. You even have an altar to Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing, set up near the hearth. You wonder if the same thing has happened to your dough? After you get the day’s fire going, you decide that instead of tossing this bubbly dough, you would cook it.
You fire your bread, and then pull it out after a while. It has a different texture that you like. You might do it again, but you don’t really know how to make it happen other than just leaving the dough out and hoping. Although you may have made this sometimes, it was not a regular occurrence.
Well, the Egyptians made it a regular occurrence. They learned to hold back a piece of the dough prior to baking. They would put this bit of “starter dough” into the new dough. This would speed the process and make it more regular, so you did not have to hope that the right yeast infected your bread.
As the dynasties moved on, the Egyptians continued to learn more and more about bread making. They improved the ovens. Learned to use bread molds. They even buried loaves with their dead.
Was it Another Group?
It is very possible that another group was making leavened bread on a smaller scale before Egypt. Possibly long before. Often when we see something in the archaeological record, it actually first happened hundreds or even thousands of years earlier. When we found the Shubayqa 1 site showing us that bread had been made 14,400 years ago, this moved back our date for the first bread by thousands of years. The same could happen for leavening.
But we just don’t know. Perhaps more evidence will come up soon. Perhaps in a couple hundred years. Perhaps we will never find any evidence moving leavened bread back before the Egyptians. For now, the honor of the first leavened bread maker belongs to Egypt.
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
Katz, S. H., Maytag, F., & Civil, M. (1991). Brewing an Ancient Beer. Archaeology, 44(4), 24–33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41765984