It may not be the most exciting food, but bread is one of the most important, and now its place in history may be even more crucial than we thought. Archaeologists have discovered the oldest direct evidence of bread ever found, dating back over 14,000 years. Not only is that several thousand years older than previous evidence of bread-making, it predates farming, leading researchers to suggest that the realization that cereals can be cultivated might have helped humans transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

Traces of starch grains have been found on grinding stones as old as 30,000 years, but that doesn't necessarily mean prehistoric humans were baking bread. This latest discovery is the earliest empirical evidence of the practice, found in a 14,400-year-old archaeological site known as Shubayqa 1, in the Black Desert of Jordan.

Home to Natufian hunter-gatherers, the site consists of two buildings that each house a stone fireplace. Excavations between 2012 and 2015 uncovered charred food remains in those fireplaces, along with stone tools, animal bones and plant remains.

In the new study, a team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen, Cambridge and University College London, analyzed the tiny charred traces using scanning electron microscopy, and found clear signatures of bread-making.

"The 24 remains analyzed in this study show that wild ancestors of domesticated cereals such as barley, einkorn, and oat had been ground, sieved and kneaded prior to cooking," says Amaia Arranz Otaegui, first author of the study. "The remains are very similar to unleavened flatbreads identified at several Neolithic and Roman sites in Europe and Turkey. So we now know that bread-like products were produced long before the development of farming."

At the time, making bread was quite a labor-intensive process, requiring dehusking, grinding, kneading and baking. The team says that this may have led to the food being seen as "special," and the desire to make more of it could have driven the decision to settle down and grow grains.

"Indeed, it may be that the early and extremely time-consuming production of bread based on wild cereals may have been one of the key driving forces behind the later agricultural revolution where wild cereals were cultivated to provide more convenient sources of food," says Tobias Richter, the archaeologist who led the excavations.

The researchers say they plan to continue studying early bread-making and other parts of the diet of people of this transitional time, with the goal of determining whether bread really prompted the move to plant cultivation as a whole.

The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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