Discover how proto-breads were made in the Natufian culture back in the Middle Stone Age.
The Natufians were an ancient culture that roamed the Levant between 15,000 and 11,700 years ago, leaving behind interesting clues about their way of life. These were among the first people to transition from foraging to permanent settlement, a revolutionary shift that allowed them to develop new skills, such as the manufacture of food. But the origins of bread-making in prehistory remain a mystery, shrouded in poor preservation. It’s a bit like a culinary detective story, with archaeobotanists trying to piece together clues about what can and cannot be considered bread. Recently, a breakthrough discovery shed new light on the Natufians’ food processing techniques. They were found to be grinding barley into flour using deep rock mortars, a practice that predates the cultivation of grain for thousands of years. In this article let’s find out how early men in the middle stone age whipped up proto-breads.
Adopting Natufian Bread-Making Techniques: Huzuq Musa, Jordan
According to an experiment conducted by David Eitam (2003–2006, 2013) and his team, the Natufian prehistoric culture was likely making flour using stone mortars as early as 12,500 years ago. These stone mortars were discovered at a site called Huzuq Musa (also known as Hruk Musa), where numerous cultural remains were found. The Natufians would use sickles with flint blades to harvest almost-ripe barley, which they would then process into an edible form using these stone mortars that were carved right into the bedrock or boulders.
What’s particularly fascinating is that this production and use of flour actually predates agriculture and animal domestication by two to three thousand years. The Natufians were among the first humans to settle in permanent locations and manufacture food. And the fact that they were able to make flour from wild barley using these stone tools is a testament to their ingenuity and resourcefulness.
To test their theories about the Natufian lifestyle, the archaeologists conducted an experiment to produce barley flour using the same tools and techniques that the Natufians would have used. They harvested wild barley, threshed it to get rid of the stalks and chaff, and then hummeled it using a wide-mouthed mortar to get rid of the awns. After separating the spikelets from the awns using a sieve, they pounded the grains into flour using a narrow conical mortar.
Finally, they used the flour to make an unleavened dough and baked it on a wood fire covered with hot embers. The outcome was a small, thick flatbread, most likely what the Natufians might have made. And even though this process was a bit inefficient, it’s estimated that it could have supplied enough nutrition for the 100 inhabitants of Huzuq Musa when combined with other hunted and gathered foods.
Bread-like Remains Found at Shubayqa, Jordan
Between 2012 and 2015, a team of archaeologists from the University of Copenhagen and University College London led by Tobias Richter conducted excavations at the Natufian site of Shubayqa I in northeastern Jordan, known as the Black Desert today.
The team found two successive basalt fireplace installations in one of the settlement’s ancient structures, which they named “structure 1.” Carbon 14 dating results indicate that the installations were used sometime between 14,400–14,200 cal BP, making Shubayqa 1 one of the earliest known Natufian sites in southwest Asia. But that’s not all they found.
Using a new set of criteria to identify cereal-based breads in the archaeological record, the team collected 24 samples of “bread-like” remains from the fireplaces. With the help of Lara Gonzalez Carratero from the Institute of Archaeology at UCL, the samples were analyzed in the lab using low-magnification microscopy and scanning electronic microscopy to study their physical texture, size, and shape, and to identify the particular plant particles of each sample.
The bread samples collected from Shubayqa 1 were flat, measuring about 4.4 mm wide by 5.7 mm long and no more than 2.5 mm high, hinting at some sort of ancient flatbread.
Using scanning electronic microscopy (SEM), the team discovered that some samples contained a mix of cereal and tubers, while others were purely cereal-based. The grains were also ground prior to cooking, indicating that the inhabitants of Shubayqa 1 had developed a system for dehusking or flour-making.
But what was the process for producing this fine-grained flour? It was a labor-intensive effort that involved repeated milling, sieving, and winnowing of the cereals. The team found evidence of hand stones and other grindstones at the site, indicating that this was a common practice among the population.
After the cereals were harvested and gathered, they were ground down to remove impurities like chaff, stalks, and stems. The flour was then sieved, milled, and reground to produce fine flour without many impurities. Interestingly, the breads lacked starch in a majority of the samples, which was expected given the repeated grinding and sieving into fine flour.
Then, the flour was mixed with water to produce a dough. Unlike modern wheat flour doughs that are porous and airy, the dough at Shubayqa 1 would have been dense due to the meticulous process of grinding and sieving that produced a fine flour.
Feasting Ritual in the Natufian Culture
The arduous process of making flatbread from wild cereals by the Natufians has left researchers pondering the reason behind it. Some suggest that it may have been a part of feasting behavior or some kind of ritual or cultural component. Similarly to pre-agricultural products such as beer, bread might have been used for a ceremony of consumption. Dorian Fuller, an expert on prehistoric cereals at UCL, suggested that during that time “food became something that was valued for more than just calories.”
While others have proposed that bread-making may have had its roots in culturally, socially, or perhaps even ideologically motivated origins. David Keys, The Independent’s archaeology correspondent claimed that early bread making at Shubayqa 1 “represents the genesis of the long-standing religious importance of bread consumption in (the Middle East).”
While we can’t say for sure, it’s likely that the production of bread at Shubayqa 1 began as a utilitarian practice for a semi-mobile population. The flatbreads were easily transportable foodstuff that could be stored for several months. However, the lack of dedicated oven installations and the significant labor costs meant that cereal-made breads were not a daily staple during the Natufian period.
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