The Stone-Age Taste of Flat Bread

19 November 20187 min reading

At the Natufian research site Shubayqa 1 in north-eastern Jordan, a team of archaeologists and ethnologists from the universities of Copenhagen, London and Cambridge have achieved a sensational find: Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, Lara Gonzalez Carretero, Monica Ramsey, Dorian Fuller and Tobias Richter have submitted the first empirical evidence of flat bread loaves made from wild grain varieties1. The 14,000-year-old bread marks the beginning of the art of baking. After earlier finds of unprocessed starch grains on stone tools at Shubayqa and charred bread remains made from cultivated Neolithic wheat in the intestines of “Ötzi the Iceman”, the missing link in the history of bread had now been closed. This adds yet another new facet to the cultural history of baking, but we have by no means reached the end of the story. 

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Flat bread – an invention of the Middle East

At an estimated age of 14,400 years, these bread remains are the oldest bakery products ever found. They confirm the scientific thesis that bread found its way into our ancestors’ diet even before the start of agriculture as a way of life over 10,000 years ago. Analyses of the charred remains suggest that the wild precursors of early domesticated cereals like einkorn, rye, millet or oats, and even roots, were used for making flat loaves. They were ground, carefully sifted, picked over and kneaded into dough.2 Although the grain yield at this time would have been sufficient to feed the family clans, bread did not become a staple food until the Neolithic Revolution.3

From a side dish to a main meal Shubayqa is one of the oldest Natufian sites so far discovered in southwest Asia. The Mesolithic Natufian culture existed in the Middle East, in the areas that are now Israel, Jordan, the Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. As gatherers, the nomads roamed through forests and grasslands and cut wild grasses with simple blades. Modern historians regard the gathering of wild cereals as a transition to the agrarian societies, for during a temporary cold spell towards the end of the last ice age, about 13,000 years ago, Natufian tribes deliberately started to bury their grain in the ground. This early seed led to a cultural revolution: the gatherers settled as family clans and practised agriculture and animal husbandry in the Middle East from about 9,000 B.C. The wild grasses were cultivated to suit human needs: the ears of einkorn became more robust, the grains larger, and bread gradually evolved into an essential element of human nutrition4.

“Ötzi the Iceman” ate flat bread made from cultivated einkorn Starting from the Middle East, cultivation of the early wheat varieties spread to Europe and the Far East in the course of the following 7,000 years. Via the Balkans and the Mediterranean region, farming as a way of life eventually reached Europe in about 7,500 B.C. Until now, the oldest evidence of bread made from cultivated einkorn was provided by “Ötzi”, whose mummified body was discovered in the glacial ice of the Ötztal Alps. The mummy, found by German ramblers in 1991, is perfectly preserved and gives us an insight into the time 5,300 years ago, the early days of agriculture in Europe. In the remains of Ötzi’s fur coat, two grains of cultivated einkorn were found, and in his intestines tiny charcoal particles were discovered – suggesting that the man’s diet included flat bread baked from einkorn. “Ötzi the Iceman” can now be seen at the South Tirol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano.

A unique replica of the figure of Ötzi was prepared for the FlourWorld Museum in the north German town of Wittenburg in close cooperation with the Museum of Archaeology. The FlourWorld Museum is an initiative of Mühlenchemie GmbH & Co. KG, one of the leading companies worldwide in the field of flour treatment. The basis for the replica was a CAT scan of the mummy’s skeleton. The fur clothing, shoes and copper axe were made according to the original finds.

Natufian bread – a precursor of modern Arabian flat bread? During excavations at the Shubayqa site, a total of 24 food residues were found and classified by the researchers as unleavened products resembling flat bread. These were very similar to the flat loaves of a later date found at Neolithic and Roman excavation sites. In order to speak of flat bread in the archaeological sense, it was necessary for the finds to meet a number of criteria that also apply to these other ancient flat bread finds 5. In particular, they have to do with the gas cells up to 0.1 mm in size that develop in the dough after the flour and water are mixed and aggregate during the kneading process to form larger structures, and also with the changes in the microstructure of the dough during baking, when a network of enclosed cavities and pores forms. At Shubayqa 1, all 24 finds showed this starch-containing microstructure and the correspondingly irregular pore matrix. At an average of 0.15 mm, the size of the cavities was also similar to that of the Neolithic and Roman flat bread finds. An analysis of the residues showed that the wild precursors of wheat, rye, millet, oats and possibly barley were ground to make the bread-like product. The flat shape of the residues was a sign that the flour was used without leavening.6

Flat bread, generally known as pita bread, is still the bread type most often consumed in the eastern Mediterranean region, including Greece. However, the principles for baking today’s flat bread are only remotely similar to those for the Natufian bread of ancient times: the main difference lies in the use of yeast for fermenting the wheat flour. The dough made from wheat or wholemeal flour is baked at high temperatures of 400-600°C, comparable with the camp fire temperatures of the past. The shape and size of the loaves vary according to local customs. If the dough is very flat and baked at high temperatures, the sudden evaporation of the water causes the bread to inflate. The shell of the loaf has already dried, and the water vapour causes the interior to expand. The result is a pocket of bread that lends itself to filling or use as a wrapper.

Has flat bread reached the end of its history? The last stage in the evolution of flat bread was reached with optimization of its baking properties and the quality of the end product with modern food technologies. In order to achieve features such as good shaping, high dough stability, ideal browning and – for the benefit of consumers – a long shelf life and ideal colour formation, bakers can now draw on enzyme toolboxes such as Alphamalt from Mühlenchemie. Since mills in the Middle East are confronted with fluctuating cereal qualities, just as elsewhere, food technologies in the field of flour improvement can make a huge contribution to stabilizing the quality of the bread. But these technical possibilities are not always used, since flat bread is a very cheap staple food which is even subsidized by the governments of some Arab countries.

The future development of Arabian flat bread is likely to be influenced strongly by new techniques of flour standardization, flour improvement and flour fortification. Just as man learned to cultivate cereals to meet his needs nearly 14,000 years ago, flour technology now helps to meet the expectations of millers, bakers and consumers.

Sources: 1-Arranz-Otaegui/Gonzalez Carretero/Fuller/Richter 2018 2-Ibid. 3-Paetsch 2011, p. 325 4-Paetsch 2011, p. 325 5-Arranz-Otaegui/Gonzalez Carretero/Fuller/Richter 2018 6-Ibid. Arranz-Otaegui, Amaia/ Gonzalez Carretero, Lara/ Ramsey, Monica N./. Fuller, Dorian Q/ Richter, Tobias (2018): Archaeobotanical evidence reveals the origins of bread 14,400 years ago in northeastern Jordan, [online] [22.8.2018]. Paetsch, Martin (2011): Die Geschichte des Mehls. Vom Mörser zur Industriemühle, in: Mühlenchemie GmbH & Co. KG (editors), flour art museum, Hamburg: Robert Wenzel Verlag, p. 322- 348.

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