In the Black Desert of Jordan, archaeologists spent several years investigating a site called Shubayqa 1. Why? Because the experts believed that the people who lived there long ago could reveal more about one of humanity’s greatest innovations. So, searching the ruins of a fireplace, the researchers found the ashes of an ancient meal. And the meal’s contents may turn traditional ideas about the development of agriculture on their head.
We know that the earliest humans were hunter-gatherers, of course. Our forebears would, then, forage for edible plants and hunt animals for sustenance. Yet as the seasons changed, so did the availability of food. People would therefore have to migrate to find new sources of nourishment. This way of living actually spans the larger portion of human history. So agriculture and the sedentary life that accompanies it are relatively new inventions.
But there are still a few hunter-gatherer societies in existence. These include the San in the southern part of Africa, the Mbuti in Central Africa and the Copper Inuit in the Arctic. This could be because the areas where these people live are not good places to grow crops or keep animals. So their lifestyles have been studied to help experts understand what ancient hunter-gatherer societies may have been like.
Every hunter-gatherer community is different, of course. Yet they do share some similar traits too. Most are quite small, for instance, with just a few dozen members. And often the labor in hunter-gatherer societies is divided: hunting tends to be the province of men; women are in charge of foraging. Other than gender and age, though, there appears to be little differentiation between the positions and roles of members of these communities.
In terms of human agriculture, however, the transition from hunting and gathering to settled farming was probably a gradual thing. It seems, in fact, that several different societies around the world began to practice agriculture independently of one another. For instance, great civilizations from Ancient Egypt, Sumer in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley of northern India all had sophisticated agricultural practices.
Evidence also suggests that some of our ancestors’ first steps towards agriculture were taken after the Pleistocene Ice Age had ended. That would have been around 11,700 years ago. The conclusion of this era marked a notable change in the climate, which in turn affected ecosystems around the world. So people of the time may well have been managing non-domesticated plants and animals in a forerunner of what would become farming.
Hunting and gathering was a difficult way to live, after all. And cultivating their own crops may have given early farmers confidence that they would not run out of food during the lean seasons. Ground, baked food could provide more energy than a raw plant, if you knew how to manipulate the crop. While farmed cows and sheep could be stable sources of milk and meat, which were not guaranteed from wild animals.
So it is thought that plants were first being domesticated around 12,000 years ago, while animals were tamed around 2,000 years after that. Between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, though, people in East Asia and the Americas also began to cultivate different crops. For instance, wheat and barley were prominent in Southwest Asia, rice dominated in East Asia, and squash appeared in countries that are now Mexico and Peru.
And as former hunter-gatherer societies settled in one place, people constructed homes that would last for extended periods of time. Populations therefore increased. In Southwest Asia, in fact, farming villages were being built around 10,000 years ago. This part of the world is now known as the Fertile Crescent. At the time, though, it became Mesopotamia – birthplace of one of humanity’s first great civilizations.
Across the Americas, though, different forms of agriculture were practiced dependent on different environments. And as there were no animals suited for pulling ploughs, farming technology was different to that in other parts of the world. The Inca built terraced fields in Peru, for instance, and the Maya and Aztecs used complex irrigation systems to support their societies.
China also saw the early development of farming communities, meanwhile. There’s even evidence that the Chinese grew rice, millet, hemp and Chinese cabbage – to up to 8,000 years ago. Paddy fields were later invented – in around 4330 BC, as far as we know – to provide the ideal wetland environment for growing rice. Similar crops would eventually be grown in what are now Korea and Japan too.
One community who lived during the transition to agriculture in Southwest Asia were the Natufians. This hunter-gatherer culture was mainly based in the area’s Mediterranean woodlands. But Shubayqa 1 is actually the first Natufian site outside of this “core zone” to be thoroughly explored by archaeologists. It is apparently proving to be a treasure trove of new information about hunter-gatherer food habits too.
Shubayqa 1 is located in the part of eastern Jordan known as the Black Desert. This area is so-called because of the black, basalt stones that make up much of its landscape. And you’ll find it near the border with Syria, around 82 miles from the Jordan’s capital city of Amman. The site is actually home to several areas of archaeological interest, of which Shubayqa 1 is just one.
Another site in the Black Desert is, for instance, called Jebel Qurma. This area has been studied extensively because of the art found on rocks nearby. In fact, the 2,000-year-old inscriptions suggest that the desert was not always an arid and inhospitable place. It’s even possible that there was once a significant population. Yet Shubayqa 1 predates the art here and seemingly proves that the Natufians were in the area far earlier.
It’s perhaps worth noting that the Black Desert is actually a volcanic field. This field also spans parts of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, making it the largest volcanic field in Arabia. The total area is more than 19,000 square miles, in fact. And it’s the source of the local basalt – a rock that can form in lava flows.
When the Natufians were living at Shubayqa 1 over 14,000 years ago, though, it was 4,000 years before farming became widespread in the area. The Natufians did, however, seemingly experience a more sedentary lifestyle than the cultures that preceded them. And as the excavations at Shubayqa show, this had a profound impact on their diet.
These digs took place at Shubayqa 1 between 2012 and 2015 – even though the site itself was first discovered in the 1990s. With the support of Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, archaeologists from the University of Copenhagen led the work. Other experts involved came from the University of Cambridge and University College London (UCL).
And while there were probably once multiple buildings at Shubayqa 1, the researchers’ focus was on the two that were best preserved. It seems that these stone structures had been constructed out of the basalt that is common in the area. And discoveries inside the buildings included tools and animal bones. A human skeleton was found in one wall too.
The team found that the buildings had also had their own fireplaces. Much like the buildings, too, these three-foot-wide fireplaces had been formed with basalt boulders. And radiocarbon dating of the ashes inside showed that the structures were in fact from the Natufian era. Yet rather than cleaning the fireplaces out, the Natufians had seemingly just left them as they were. So the researchers could therefore analyze the ashes to see what the Natufians had been cooking and eating.
And fortunately, during the time of the Natufians, Shubayqa 1 would probably have been a wetland. So while today’s arid conditions may make it difficult to grow crops here, it would have been a different story back then. Some produce, such as wheat, already grew naturally in the area, in fact. Yet archaeologists previously believed that the Natufians lived thousands of years before agriculture had started in Southwest Asia.
That’s what makes what was discovered at Shubayqa 1 so special. You see, researchers took 49 samples from the fireplaces to be later analyzed by the most advanced microscopy. And what the results found was that, despite not being farmers, the Natufians had somehow developed all the processes necessary to create their own bread.
Today, of course, bread can be found all around the world and forms an essential part of many diets. Yet despite this, little is actually known about the foodstuff’s early development. It had been thought, for instance, that bread didn’t become a dietary staple until Neolithic farmers could rely on their own cereal cultivation to help them produce it. So the fact that the Natufians had seemingly been making it without growing their own crops has fascinated researchers.
The Shubayqa 1 discovery is not the first time that prehistoric bread has been investigated, mind you. New technology, however, means that scientists can examine its composition with more accuracy than ever before. So the Shubayga 1 samples were sent to UCL, where they could be looked at with a method called scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Interestingly, it’s hoped that this technique can one day be used to reanalyze remains from previously discovered sites too.
Lara Gonzalez Carratero led the team at UCL investigating the ashes. However, this task isn’t as simple as it perhaps sounds. First, the research student had to establish criteria to separate bread from other ancient cereal products, such as porridge, before she could even begin. To do this, the microscopy allowed Carratero to see the particles and microstructures inside the remains. And then she could compare the samples to bread produced experimentally for the study.
You see, the most basic forms of bread only need flour and water. This mixture is then usually baked with dry heat. It’s actually the inclusion of gluten or other protein in the flour that gives bread its shape and texture. As part of a human diet, then, bread provides a range of nutrients, including iron, magnesium and B vitamins. The foodstuff is also a good source of carbohydrates and fiber. Bread would have therefore been a good way for hunter-gatherers to make up for the lack of calories in the raw plants that they had consumed.
Anyway, Carratero needed to see whether the Shubayga 1 samples matched her definition of bread. And the microscopy revealed that the ashes contained a mix of einkorn wheat, oats, barley and club-rush tubers. Of those, too, 24 samples fit Carratero’s criteria. So this means that the plant matter would likely have been ground together to make a fine flour of surprisingly high quality. The bread would also have been made without yeast or any other kind of raising agent. It was therefore flatbread, probably like a modern pita in appearance.
The plant that appeared most frequently in the fireplaces was the club-rush tubers. And according to botanical expert Amaia Arranz Otaegui, who also co-authored the subsequent July 2018 study, the tubers on their own taste “a little sweet and a bit salty and had a gritty texture.” But Otaegui did argue that could have been due to the scientists not cleaning them properly.
On their own, though, the club-rush tubers would have produced a brittle bread that easily crumbled. So by adding the wheat, the Natufians would have introduced the gluten necessary to change the texture of the dough. This would have allowed them to bake the bread more easily. There was no evidence of ovens at Shubayqa 1, however, so the bread was probably baked on a hot stone next to the fire or in the ashes themselves.
The ability to be baked without an oven is likely one reason why flatbreads were popular in the ancient world, in fact. Another is probably that they are easy to stack, making transportation and storage simple. It’s not the first time that historical unleavened flatbreads have been found, either. There are actually Roman and even Neolithic sites in both Europe and Turkey that have revealed similar remains. The oldest of these, though, was 9,100 years old. The bread in Jordan predates this significantly.
Yet the archaeologists were not entirely surprised by their discovery. After all, previous explorations of Natufian sites have revealed ancient grinding tools and sickle blades made of flint. These suggested that the Natufians had been interacting with and manipulating plants. And so now the researchers finally have evidence to support their theories.
Indeed, Antonella Pasqualone, a food technologist not involved in the study, seemed to agree with the study’s findings. Pasqualone is an expert in the science behind cereals, while bread has been the focus of several studies she has authored. And she’s said that flatbreads may have been an ideal way to “bridge between hunter-gatherers and stable farmers” because of their advantages over other types of bread.
Another point of view was put forward by Patrick McGovern from the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania. McGovern’s expertise is ancient beer. And in July 2018 he considered it likely that if the Natufians had been manipulating cereals for bread, then they could very well have made beer too. In September 2018, in fact, a Natufian cave in Israel did reveal evidence of a 13,000-year-old brewery.
Yet as creating bread is a labor-intensive process, the Natufians must have had good reason to make the effort. In fact, the Natufians would have had to dehusk and grind the cereals and then knead and bake the dough. So something about this must have been special. It’s possible, for instance, that the lengthy production process had felt necessary to impress special guests.
The importance of bread, even in the modern world, is about much more than its nutritional value, after all. Otaegui, for one, thinks that bread has “this additional powerful place in contemporary culture with links to religion and important ceremonies.” The expert even considers that bread is an important part of a shared cultural history between modern people and their ancestors.
To see the symbolic value given to bread in modern society, of course, you only have to look as far as the Christian communion. This is one of the most important ceremonies in Christianity, and it involves eating a piece of bread as well as drinking a sip of wine. As part of the ritual, the wine represents the blood of Jesus Christ, while the bread represents the body.
Elsewhere, bread and wine feature in the Last Supper and as part of the Jewish festival of Pesach or Passover. The holiday of Passover actually celebrates how God was said to have rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Even today, in fact, Jewish people honor Passover as one of their holiest festivals. And one way in which they do so is by eating matzo, a kind of unleavened bread.
So if bread was important enough to the Natufians, they may have even been motivated to start growing their own cereals. Agriculture may therefore have started because the Natufians had wanted to produce more bread. So investigating whether the making of bread was a factor in people beginning to cultivate cereals is one of the next aims of the researchers. For now, though, the team have published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Danish Council for Independent Research has awarded more money to continue the research too. And the experts want to further explore early plant and animal consumption in light of their newest discoveries. This includes identifying which plants were preferred for breadmaking and whether they were the plants that would go on to be cultivated by farmers.
Otaegui also wants to recreate the Natufian bread. The first step towards this was making flour with club-rush tubers – but initial results didn’t seem suited to modern taste buds. It may in fact take some adjustment for today’s humans to consume such an ancient recipe. Otaegui still sees it as another way of connecting with our Natufian ancestors, though.
McGovern also agrees that studying ancient people is fascinating partly because of the ways in which they are similar to us. So it seems that the bread discovery at Shubayqa 1 may not just tell us more about agricultural history; it could tell us about humanity as a species and how we have developed into who we are now.