Slab stele from mastaba tomb of Itjer at Giza.
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Bread’s birth bested by 4400 years

Like many of you reading this item I suspect, I was taught that agriculture was ‘invented’ about 10,000 years ago in the so-called Fertile Crescent, an ancient territory that corresponds to much of the modern-day Middle East. Also, and equally no doubt like many readers, I took that remarkably civilising innovation – when societies adopted more sedentary lifestyles with domestication of cereals and animals – to infer that was also the time when bread [“a kind of food made of flour [commonly from ground grains of cereals such as wheat] or meal that has been mixed with milk or water, made into a dough or batter, with or without yeast or other leavening agent, and baked”] was created and became such a big part of mankind’s daily existence. But, seemingly that’s not so.

Slab stele from mastaba tomb of Itjer at Giza.
Slab stele from mastaba tomb of Itjer at Giza. 4th Dynasty, 2543-2435 BC. Itjer is seated at a table with slices of bread, shown vertical by convention. Other offerings described in the text near the table are incense, fruit, and wine. Excavations 1903 by Schiaparelli, S. 1849. Egyptian Museum, Turin. Image: Ian Alexander – / Wikipedia

Amaia Arranz-Otaegui et al. report the discovery of “bread-like products”* in Shubayqa (a Natufian hunter-gatherer site in north-eastern Jordan, i.e. in the Fertile Crescent). But, and here’s the myth-busting part, this bread is 14,400 years old, i.e. 4,000 years before the dawn of agriculture(!). So, now we have a true botanical conundrum to rival the zoologist’s favourite of “Which came first: The chicken or the egg?”. We of a more plant-minded persuasion must surely ask: “Which came first: Bread or domestication of wheat?”**

In another ‘pushing back the dates of significant plant-based events’, Patrick McGovern et al. present the earliest evidence for grape wine and viniculture. Using biomolecular-archaeological and archaeobotanical evidence (the latter of which includes grape pollen, starch, and epidermal remains), they identified wine residues*** in pottery fragments from approx. 8,000 years ago, in the Neolithic Period. The sites were in what is modern-day Georgia in the South Caucasus region. This discovery helps to substantiate the proud claim that Georgia is “the birthplace of wine” and the “world’s cradle of viticulture”.

Just as cereals gave mankind the calories to do whatever was necessary to survive in those ancient times, wine acted as “a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance, and highly valued commodity … and … became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopoeias, cuisines, economies, and society in the ancient Near East”. Bread and wine, a combination that’s so good together humanity discovered it probably as early as it realistically could. All that’s missing is the cheese and we have a party.****

[Ed. – and bringing this 14,400 years’ old story right up-to-date we have publication of the genome of Triticum aestivum, bread wheat, by Ramírez-González et al. and the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC). In view of the global food security importance of wheat, the relevance and significance of this terrific achievement – it’s one of the largest genomes ever sequenced – is rightly celebrated in several news reports.]

* Although it’s a pity that it’s not ‘proper’ bread, i.e. made from bread wheat (Triticum aestivum). But, since Triticum boeoticum/urartuwild einkorn, a wild ancestor of bread wheat – appears to be involved in these products, and, given that T. aestivum’s origin post-dates the advent of agriculture, true bread wheat didn’t exist 14,400 years ago anyway, these items have more than earned their bread-like designation. But, accuracy (i.e. due caution in interpretation) in all things and all that…

** Presumably the answer is that as cereal-domestication – which largely defines ‘agriculture’ in the Fertile Crescent area – developed it capitalised upon, and the first farmers were sustained by, bread-making and consumption of calorifically-supportive bread products. In so doing those ancient tillers and toilers of the soil improved wheat so that better bread products were made, that provided better nutrition and more calories, etc. The argument therefore becomes somewhat circular (rather like the imagined shape of the pre-agricultural Shubayqan ‘bread-like products’…), which is often the nature of those biological conundra. Anyway, their real role is as devices to get people discussing the issue, maybe over a pint or two of another cereal-based, civilising consequence of agriculture, beer.

*** Although it wasn’t stated in the McGovern et al. paper (and may be impossible to ascertain), one suspects the ancient Georgian wine wasn’t the blue variant that was causing quite a fuss in the west of Europe during the summer of 2018.

**** And, as if on cue, talking of cheese [“a food made from the pressed curds of milk…”], we can share with you news of what is – to date! – the oldest known cheese (officially, the ‘most ancient archaeological solid residue of cheese’) in the tomb of Ptahmes, mayor of Memphis in Egypt during the 13th century BCE. The identification was made by Enrico Greco et al.. However, lest you fromagophiles/cheesaholics be tempted to taste this pharaonic delicacy, be advised that the team also identified the presence of Brucella melitensis – the causative agent of brucellosis, which affects several mammals, including humans – in the samples. Now, that is a credible ‘curse of the Pharaohs’.

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that international plant science journal for almost 10 years. As a freelance plant science communicator I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Plant Cuttings [] (and formerly at Botany One []). In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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