Sunday, December 8, 2019

Following a New Trail of Crumbs to Agriculture’s Origins

From Sapiens:

Archaeologists have found tiny pieces of ancient bread from hunter-gatherers that predate agriculture by about 4,000 years.
 The world’s oldest bread crumbs found to date were excavated 
from the stone-lined fireplace in the center of this photo.
It’s mid-August in 2013, and we are working in the dry heat of the Jordanian Harra basalt desert. It is the last week of our second season of excavations at the 14,500-year-old archaeological site called Shubayqa 1. We have just finished exposing the stone floor of a Paleolithic house, and we are elated—it took six weeks of digging to get to this point. Our next target is to reach a circular, stone-lined fireplace, measuring about a meter across, that is set into the floor of the building. Careful excavation over the course of the next two days produces excitement among the team members: We have unearthed tens of thousands of charred plant remains preserved in the ashy sediment. This is an unprecedented find because plant remains from this timeframe in southwest Asia are exceptionally rare. And to uncover thousands in one spot is an archaeobotanist’s dream. Little did we know that further analysis would reveal something even more shocking: We had happened upon the earliest known crumbs of bread.

Bread is the most common staple food in most parts of the world, apart from some areas of Asia where rice is king. It is also one of the most diverse food products: Each region makes its own distinct varieties using doughs made from water mixed with wheat, rye, corn, or other common plant-derived ingredients. Bread also has significant cultural, even national, connotations: What would France be without its baguette and croissant? Denmark without its rugbrød (rye bread) and smørrebrød (open-faced sandwiches)? The Arab world without pita? Every culture has developed its own types of bread that have, in many cases, become a culinary expression of identity. Baguettes, rye breads, tortillas, bagels, pitas, chapatis, focaccia, malooga (a flatbread found in Yemen), or nan—if you live in Europe, the Americas, Africa, or most parts of Asia, there’s a good chance that you’ll eat bread on any given day....