ABSENCE of evidence is not evidence of absence. The value of that aphorism has just been shown by a discovery made at Qa’ Shubayqa, in north-eastern Jordan. Amaia Arranz-Otaegui of the University of Copenhagen and her colleagues found breadcrumbs in two ancient fireplaces there. Not that unusual as archaeological discoveries go, except that these fireplaces were between 14,200 and 14,400 years old. The loaves the crumbs came from were thus baked more than 4,000 years before the beginning of agriculture.
That bread was coeval with cereal farming was an easy idea to accept in the absence of contrary evidence—as was the case until the publication of Dr Arranz-Otaegui’s discovery in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Before it, the oldest evidence of breadmaking was from 9,100 years ago, in Anatolia.
Altogether, Dr Arranz-Otaegui and her colleagues found 24 charred breadcrumbs (one of which is pictured) scattered in the ashes in the fireplaces. Each was several millimetres across. The hearths themselves had been laid by people now known as Natufians, who were hunter-gatherers. The crumbs were among more than 65,000 burnt fragments of plants such as tubers, legumes and wild grains. The bread’s ingredients were species of wheat and barley growing wild in the region (which was at that time fertile, though it is now desert), and crushed tubers from Bolboschoenus glaucus, a type of papyrus.
Dr Arranz-Otaegui is not claiming that breadmaking was common this early in human history. Indeed, she acknowledges that even though her find shows that people knew how to bake the stuff 14,000 years ago, foraging for the ingredients would have been a considerable chore. Which leads to the question, why bother?
One hypothesis which might answer that question, but for which there is still a complete absence of evidence, is that beer-making, too, is older than believed. The oldest evidence of brewing suggests that beer was originally made from bread rather than directly from grains. This has led some people to hypothesise that acting as a feedstock for brewing was bread’s initial purpose. Only later did it become the staff of life.
If the Natufians did understand how to brew beer from bread, that would surely be a motive to search out the relevant ingredients and go to all the trouble of grinding them into flour, mixing them with water to form a dough, and then baking them. Indeed, it would be motive to start garnering some of those seeds and planting them in small patches of cleared ground, so that they could more easily be collected. The question “why bother”—both with baking and with tillage—might have its answer if further excavations at Qa’ Shubayqa or elsewhere reveal evidence of the world’s oldest brewery.