Of Maize and Men: Humans Have Been Baking Bread for 15,000 Years

7_17_Flour grinding
A person grinds club-rush to produce flour in an experiment. Alexis Pantos

The blackened crumbs of an ancient fireplace have revealed that our ancestors ate bread thousands of years earlier than archaeologists previously thought.

The tiny charred pieces of cereals and plant roots discovered in northeastern Jordan are the remains of the oldest bread ever discovered, from nearly 15,000 years ago.

A person excavates an ancient fireplace structure in northeastern Jordan. Alexis Pantos

Archaeologist Amaia Arranz-Otaegui and colleagues found the crumbs in the ancient fireplaces of a Natufian hunter-gatherer site believed to date between 14,600 and 11,600 years ago. Before this discovery the earliest evidence of bread were 9,100 year old remains found in Turkey.

"They look like something similar to what you may find charred in your toaster. Small pieces of black vitrified and porous stuff. They are around [one inch in] length, more or less," Arranz-Otaegui told Newsweek. Although the crumbs aren't particularly appealing, she said, they provided scientists with information impossible to find elsewhere.

The breadcrumbs lay near the remains of animals like gazelles, wild sheep and hares, and plants like oats, wild barley and legumes.

The bread itself is made up of cereals and club-rush tubers, ground into a flour much like the powdered grains you'd see in a bakery today. Ancient humans probably mixed this flour with water to create a dough. Without bread ovens, they may have used the ashes of the fireplace or a hot stone to bake the mixture, Arranz-Otaegui said.

For years, scientists had linked the production of bread to the emergence of agricultural practices in the Neolithic period, which began around 12,000 years ago. "To… find remains of bread at a 14,500 year old site that predates the beginning of agriculture was very surprising and astounding. We didn't expect to see that at all," Arranz-Otaegui said. "Our work shows that bread was not a product of settled societies, but perhaps, a precursor to it."

Some scientists think foods like bread and beer were luxury goods that people ate on special occasions, Arranz-Otaegui explained. The demand for these fancier foods may have led to plant cultivation, but archaeologists can't be sure just yet. "We need further investigations to assess what the role of cereal-based products like bread was during the Natufian [period]: whether they were staples, occasionally consumed plant-foods or prestigious items," she said. "Time will hopefully tell."

Flatbread is displayed. Getty Images

The discovery is a win for the burgeoning field of archaeology analyzing ancient scraps of food. Scientists may have overlooked plenty of ancient breadcrumbs in the past, Arranz-Otaegui said. Now, her team will focus on sifting through almost 580 remains yet to be examined from the Jordanian fireplaces.

"Food remains are rarely identified in archaeological sites. They are one of those "artifacts" that people have not paid much attention to," Arranz-Otaegui explained. "I'm sure that in the next years we will see an expansion on the analyses of archaeological food remains. It is one of the emerging frontiers in archaeological research."

The findings of Arranz-Otaegui and her colleagues were published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.