Archaeologists have discovered what they believe to be the oldest evidence of refined cooking in northeastern Jordan’s Black Desert, and it changes what we know about the evolution of cooking.
Publishing their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a trio of international universities say charred crumbs found in two prehistoric fireplaces mean humans were cooking and eating bread 14,400 years ago, at least 4,000 years earlier than previously believed. A long-held theory suggests humans began cooking bread products after they had started cultivating agricultural products like grains. However, this new find means bread baking could have encouraged humans at this time – known as Natufian hunter-gatherers – to shift towards growing their own cereals instead of the other way around.
“Natufian hunter-gatherers are of particular interest to us because they lived through a transitional period when people became more sedentary and their diet began to change,” said Tobias Richter, who led the excavations, in a statement. Researchers say the charred remains doubled with tools and blades found at other Natufian sites confirm theories that people during this time began to utilize plants in different, possibly more effective ways.
After sieving the bread crumbs from sediment found at the site, researchers analyzed the specimens using a high-powered beam that can generate surface texture and chemical compositions – a process called scanning electronic microscopy (SEM). These scans were tested against identification criteria established to specifically identify flatbread, dough, and porridge found throughout the archaeological record.
It’s difficult to determine why early humans were making bread during this time, but the scientists note that it could have been a way to stock up on light, nutritional, and transportable food. Or, it could have held a much more symbolic meaning.
"Bread involves labor-intensive processing which includes de-husking, grinding of cereals and kneading and baking," said Professor Dorian Fuller of University College London. "That it was produced before farming methods suggests it was seen as special, and the desire to make more of this special food probably contributed to the decision to begin to cultivate cereals.”
Researchers say funding granted through the Danish Council for Independent Research will help evaluate if the production and consumption of bread influenced domestication and cultivation, and will help us further understand how ancient people consumed different plants and animals. In this, the team hopes to further learn why certain ingredients were chosen for cultivation over others.