THE ceremonial or religious significance of bread is far more ancient than historians and archaeologists have previously believed.
Investigations in a remote desert region of the Middle East have revealed that the earliest known bread appears to have been made for use in a ceremonial or religious context some 14,400 years ago.
It is 5000 years more ancient than the previously known oldest example of bread.
The evidence from the site Shubayqa 1, in north-east Jordan, suggests that the bread was probably consumed as part of a ceremonial or ritually important communal meal.
Some 254 fragments of unleavened flatbread were unearthed by archaeologists in the hearth of what appears to have been a ceremonial or religious building.
It is one of the oldest stone structures in the world. About eight metres in diameter, it is one of a series of little-known early stone buildings — the first-ever built — constructed between 15,500 and 14,000 years ago.
The discovery reveals that bread-making pre-dates the development of agriculture by some 3500 years.
As a result of the find, archaeologists have had to abandon the idea that agriculture led to the invention of bread. Rather, they are now beginning to think that bread-making (and the demand for cereals it would have created) may have been a factor that eventually led to the birth of agriculture.
The probable ceremonial, or ritual context in which the 14,400-year-old bread fragments were found, and the nutritionally uneconomic nature of wild cereal bread, suggests that it was invented mainly for special non-utilitarian use.
The making and consumption of this early bread is thought to have had great ceremonial or ideological significance, because — unlike most other foods at that time — making it would have cost the community more energy than they would have gained by consuming it.
Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) image of a bread-like product from Shubayqa 1
Making wild cereal bread was very energy intensive, as it would have involved gathering wild cereal seeds (which were very small), separating the seeds from their husks, grinding them, obtaining water, making the dough, flattening the dough, and finally cooking it.
The discovery, therefore, appears to represent a profound change in human eating practice: away from the purely nutritionally utilitarian and towards a more culturally, socially, and perhaps ideologically determined culinary tradition that is the norm throughout most of the world today.
The ceremonial (i.e. non-nutritionally economic) production and consumption of early bread was therefore not only the probable beginning of the ceremonial or religious significance of that food product, but also the birth of sophisticated cuisine. It may be, therefore, that a ceremonially motivated invention such as bread ultimately led (partly via the invention of agriculture) to our modern culinary cultures.
Special bread, of course, continues to be important in Christian and Jewish religious practice.
At Shubayqa 1, the bread fragments were found with debris that seems to have been from a series of probably ceremonial feasts: gazelle, waterfowl, and hare bones, wild mustard seeds, and charred tubers. Most of the bread was made of wild wheat.
The site has been excavated by a team led by Dr Tobias Richter, of the University of Copenhagen. The analysis and identification of the bread, however, was carried out by Lara González Carretero, of University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, and Dr Amaia Arranz Otaegui, of the University of Copenhagen.
A leading expert on prehistoric cereals, Professor Dorian Fuller, of the Institute of Archaeology, said: “This discovery demonstrates that food became something that was valued for more than just calories. It reveals that people over 14,000 years ago had begun to consume food for social, cultural, and potentially ideological reasons.”
The discovery of what is thought to be the world’s oldest bread, at the Shubayqa 1 site, has been published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
At least three or four different types of flatbread have been discovered at the site. Of a total of 254 fragments, 100 were analysed. Of these, only 24 yielded data on their composition. Of that sample, 75 per cent were made purely of wild wheat (probably wild einkorn); 12.5 per cent purely from wild barley; and 12.5 per cent from a mixture of wild wheat and the tubers of a species of the large bullrush-like plant, sedge.
Because many mustard seeds were also found in the hearth (and it is known from much later Middle Eastern evidence that such seeds were used in bread-making), it is possible that some of the other bread fragments were made from wheat (or barley) mixed with mustard seeds.