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Remains of bread baked 14,400 years ago found in Jordan

Photo courtesy Alexis Pantos

By Tamara Qiblawi and Jen Christensen, CNN

(CNN) -- Archaeologists have discovered the burnt remains of a bread baked 14,400 years ago, more than 4,000 years before the advent of agriculture.

The findings, excavated in northeastern Jordan's Black Desert, reveal the oldest direct evidence of bread and are discussed Monday in the journal PNAS. Twenty-four bread-like discoveries were found in two fireplaces in a Natufian hunter-gatherer site known as Shubayqa 1.

"The presence of hundreds of charred food remains in the fireplaces from Shubayqa 1 is an exceptional find, and it has given us the chance to characterize 14,000-year-old food practices," said University of Copenhagen archaeobotanist Amaia Arranz Otaegui, the first author of the report, who is now on a dig in Iran.

"So now we know that bread-like products were produced long before the development of farming," Otaegui said, adding that the bread production could have contributed to the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic period.

The Epipaleolithic period bread was made of domesticated cereals and club-rush tubers, according to the study.

Otaegui said she tasted the tubers they used, and "they were a little sweet and a bit salty and had a gritty texture, but maybe that's because we didn't clean them well enough."

Previously, evidence of bread production was found in late Neolithic sites in Turkey and the Netherlands. The charred remains in Jordan are the first direct evidence that bread production preceded agriculture.

"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 University of Copenhagen archaeologist Tobias Richter, who led the excavations.

The authors of the report noted that cereal-based foodstuffs were difficult to make. Hunter-gatherers may have considered them luxury foods "employed to impress invited guests and secure prestige for the hosts."

"It is quite interesting," said food technologist Antonella Pasqualone, who did not work on this study but as a professor at the University of Bari specializes in cereal science and technology, and who has written several studies on bread.

"Flat bread presents numerous advantages over 'high' and voluminous bread loaves, and in my opinion, a plausible hypothesis is that this kind of bread could be a perfect bridge between hunter-gatherers and stable farmers," Pasqualone said.

Flat bread doesn't need a large oven, but it "could be baked simply by covering by sand and embers or by laying down the dough on a metal or a terracotta plate placed on the fire," she said. "Finally, flat breads could be easily transported with little encumbrance by stacking them on top of each other."

"I think this offers a whole new perspective about the possibility of bread in this time period. The evidence is quite convincing," said Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia.

McGovern, who was not involved in the study, also suspects that researchers might be seeing some evidence of beer making, but there would need to be more evidence. He's written extensively about the art of ancient beer making in the books "Uncorking the Past" and "Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-created."

He thinks it's powerful to be able to look at the ancient past and see connections to today. "They are very similar people to us, but they don't have the modern tools we do and may have been more in touch with the natural world," McGovern said. "If you think about it, if you are only living to 20, you will be looking to your environment for anything that will extend your life, help your diet or cure disease. All these carbohydrate resources and herbs become very important."

Otaegui said she hopes to work with some modern chefs to try to make the ancient recipe. "Bread is such an important staple, but it also has this additional powerful place in contemporary culture with links to religion and important ceremonies. Finding this link for us to the past and our ancestors was the last thing we expected to find, but it was a good surprise for sure."

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