World's oldest bread found at prehistoric site in Jordan

WASHINGTON, July 16 (Reuters) - Charred remains of a flatbread baked about 14,500 years ago in a stone fireplace at a site in northeastern Jordan have given researchers a delectable surprise: people began making bread, a vital staple food, millennia before they developed agriculture.

No matter how you slice it, the discovery detailed on Monday shows that hunter-gatherers in the Eastern Mediterranean achieved the cultural milestone of bread-making far earlier than previously known, more than 4,000 years before plant cultivation took root.

The flatbread, likely unleavened and somewhat resembling pita bread, was fashioned from wild cereals such as barley, einkorn or oats, as well as tubers from an aquatic papyrus relative, that had been ground into flour.

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Natufian culture in the Eastern Mediterranean
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Natufian culture in the Eastern Mediterranean
UNSPECIFIED - MARCH 20: Natufian burial found on Mount Carmel. Jerusalem, Rockefeller Archaeological Museum (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - MARCH 20: Natufian burial found on Mount Carmel. Jerusalem, Rockefeller Archaeological Museum (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - NOVEMBER 4: This undated handout photo provided by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem November 4, 2008 shows archaeologists uncovering the grave of a she-shaman from the Natufian period, some 12,000 years ago, at the Hilazon Tachtit archaeological site in the Western Galilee in northern Israel. The university announced the finds after recent excavations of the she-shaman?s grave showed she was buried with fifty tortoises, the near-compete pelvis of a leopard, the wing tip of a golden eagle, the tail of a cow, two marten skulls and the forearm of a wild. In addition, a human foot belonging to an adult individual who was substantially larger than the interred woman was also found in the grave. The university said the burial is thought to be one of the earliest known from the archaeological record and the only shaman grave in the whole region. (Photo by Naftali Hilger/Hebrew University via Getty Images)
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - NOVEMBER 4: This undated handout photo provided by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem November 4, 2008 shows tortoise shells around the grave of a she-shaman from the Natufian period, some 12,000 years ago, at the Hilazon Tachtit archaeological site in the Western Galilee in northern Israel. The university announced the finds after recent excavations of the she-shaman?s grave showed she was buried with fifty tortoises, the near-compete pelvis of a leopard, the wing tip of a golden eagle, the tail of a cow, two marten skulls and the forearm of a wild. In addition, a human foot belonging to an adult individual who was substantially larger than the interred woman was also found in the grave. The university said the burial is thought to be one of the earliest known from the archaeological record and the only shaman grave in the whole region. (Photo by Naftali Hilger/Hebrew University via Getty Images)
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - NOVEMBER 4: This undated handout photo provided by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem November 4, 2008 shows a pair of tortoise shells, part of the exceptional funerary offerings recovered from the grave of a she-shaman from the Natufian period, some 12,000 years ago, at the Hilazon Tachtit archaeological site in the Western Galilee in northern Israel. The university announced the finds after recent excavations of the she-shaman?s grave showed she was buried with fifty tortoises, the near-compete pelvis of a leopard, the wing tip of a golden eagle, the tail of a cow, two marten skulls and the forearm of a wild. In addition, a human foot belonging to an adult individual who was substantially larger than the interred woman was also found in the grave. The university said the burial is thought to be one of the earliest known from the archaeological record and the only shaman grave in the whole region. (Photo by Gideon Hartman/Hebrew University via Getty Images)
Limestone grinding tool from the Natufian culture, from the Eastern Mediterranean region. Dated 9,800 BC. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Limestone grinding tool from the Natufian culture, from the Eastern Mediterranean region. Dated 9,800 BC. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Limestone grinding tool from the Natufian culture, from the Eastern Mediterranean region. Dated 9,800 BC. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
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It was made by a culture called the Natufians, who had begun to embrace a sedentary rather than nomadic lifestyle, and was found at a Black Desert archeological site.

"The presence of bread at a site of this age is exceptional," said Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, a University of Copenhagen postdoctoral researcher in archaeobotany and lead author of the research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Arranz-Otaegui said until now the origins of bread had been associated with early farming societies that cultivated cereals and legumes. The previous oldest evidence of bread came from a 9,100-year-old site in Turkey.

(A stone structure at an archeological site containing a fireplace, seen in the middle, where charred remains of 14,500-year-old bread was found in the Black Desert, in northeastern Jordan in this photo provided July 16, 2018. Alexis Pantos/Handout via REUTERS)

"We now have to assess whether there was a relationship between bread production and the origins of agriculture," Arranz-Otaegui said. "It is possible that bread may have provided an incentive for people to take up plant cultivation and farming, if it became a desirable or much-sought-after food."

University of Copenhagen archeologist and study co-author Tobias Richter pointed to the nutritional implications of adding bread to the diet. "Bread provides us with an important source of carbohydrates and nutrients, including B vitamins, iron and magnesium, as well as fiber," Richter said.

Abundant evidence from the site indicated the Natufians had a meat- and plant-based diet. The round floor fireplaces, made from flat basalt stones and measuring about a yard (meter) in diameter, were located in the middle of huts.

Arranz-Otaegui said the researchers have begun the process of trying to reproduce the bread, and succeeded in making flour from the type of tubers used in the prehistoric recipe. But it might have been an acquired taste.

"The taste of the tubers," Arranz-Otaegui said, "is quite gritty and salty. But it is a bit sweet as well."

(Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, a University of Copenhagen postdoctoral researcher in archaeobotany, and Ali Shakaiteer, a local assistant to researchers working at an archeological site in the Black Desert in northeastern Jordan, are seen collecting wheat in this image provided July 16, 2018. Joe Roe/Handout via REUTERS)

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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