Pompeii Bread

Ann Gibbons wrote in National Geographic: “The domestication of grains such as sorghum, barley, wheat, corn, and rice created a plentiful and predictable food supply, allowing farmers’ wives to bear babies in rapid succession—one every 2.5 years instead of one every 3.5 years for hunter-gatherers. A population explosion followed; before long, farmers outnumbered foragers. [Source: Ann Gibbons, National Geographic, September 2014 /*/]

“Over the past decade anthropologists have struggled to answer key questions about this transition. Was agriculture a clear step forward for human health? Or in leaving behind our hunter-gatherer ways to grow crops and raise livestock, did we give up a healthier diet and stronger bodies in exchange for food security? /*/

“When biological anthropologist Clark Spencer Larsen of Ohio State University describes the dawn of agriculture, it’s a grim picture. As the earliest farmers became dependent on crops, their diets became far less nutritionally diverse than hunter-gatherers’ diets. Eating the same domesticated grain every day gave early farmers cavities and periodontal disease rarely found in hunter-gatherers, says Larsen. When farmers began domesticating animals, those cattle, sheep, and goats became sources of milk and meat but also of parasites and new infectious diseases. Farmers suffered from iron deficiency and developmental delays, and they shrank in stature. /*/

“Despite boosting population numbers, the lifestyle and diet of farmers were clearly not as healthy as the lifestyle and diet of hunter-gatherers. That farmers produced more babies, Larsen says, is simply evidence that “you don’t have to be disease free to have children.” /*/

Good Websites Archaeology News Report ; : ; Archaeology in Europe ; Archaeology magazine ; HeritageDaily; Livescience ; Food Timeline, History of Food ; Food and History

Stone Age People Made Flour Made From Wild Grains 30,000 Years Ago

Humans didn’t begin major agriculture until about 10,000 years ago but they were were grinding grain and making their own flour 30,000 years ago according to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in October 2010. A team led by Anna Revedin found traces evidence of flour still stuck in 30,000-year-old stones in Russia, Italy, and the Czech Republic.The flour was likely suitable for making flatbread or cakes. Because it could be stored, flour would have given them greater independence from environmental and seasonal circumstance. [Source:Andrew Moseman, Discover, October 18, 2010, []

Andrew Moseman wrote in Discover: The stones themselves appear to have been shaped for grinding, like an archaic mortar and pestle. They found tiny remnants of starch on the grinding tools and in some cases were able identify the plants they came from. In Italy, these included the starch-rich rhizomes from Typha angustifolia, or narrow leaf cat tail, Typha latifolia, broad leaf cattail, as well as Brachypodium, grasses that have caryopsis, or grains, and are easy to grind and grow well in the area. Another grain was found that appears to be from Sparganium, or bur reed. [USA Today]

Because these people lived long before agriculture, they would have relied on the wild varieties of these species. No problem, says team member Laura Longo — those plants would have been widely distributed across Europe in those days. And if you cook them, the energy content is actually quite good, Longo says. Scratched-up animal bones showing where early humans cut off the meat are much easier to find than evidence for omnivorousness. Through finds like this one, though, the idea of strictly meat-eating group living back then has been crumbling.

Bruce Hardy, a paleoanthropologist at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, expects that flour-making dates back even further than 30,000 years. “This is not isolated to a small group of people. It’s a regular part of subsistence for humans,” he says. After all, humans, ancient or modern, just aren’t equipped to live on a diet of meat alone. “If you get that much meat in your diet not balanced out with other nutrients, you get protein poisoning,” says Hardy. [Nature]

8000-Years-Old Bulgur Wheat Porridge from Bulgaria

Middle Eastern style pita bread

Bulgur (also bulghur or burghul) is a cereal food made from several different wheat species, most often from durum wheat. Its use is most common in Middle Eastern cuisine and in Greece. Jennifer Viegas wrote in Discovery News: “Breakfast 8000 years ago wasn’t that much different from what we enjoy today, according to a study that describes the world’s oldest known cooked cereal. Dating from between 5920 to 5730 B.C., the ancient cereal consisted of parboiled bulgur wheat that Early Neolithic Bulgarians could refresh in minutes with hot water. “People boiled the grain, dried it, removed the bran and ground it into coarse particles,” lead author Soultana-Maria Valamoti says. “In this form, the cereal grain can be stored throughout the year and consumed easily, even without boiling, by merely soaking in hot water,” Valamoti, an assistant professor of archaeology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, says. [Source: Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News,, November 30, 2010]

“She and her colleagues studied the Bulgarian grain, excavated at a site called Kapitan Dimitrievo, as well as 4000-year-old grains of barley and wheat from northern Greece. Very high magnification by microscope revealed precise details about the individual cereal grains, including their composition. The findings are published in the latest issue of the journal Vegetation History and Archaeobotany.

“The analysis shows that starch within the Bulgarian grains was swollen, twisted and, at times, fused together. Such starch modifications were more extreme toward the outer layers of the bulgur, consistent with grains that had been penetrated by boiling water. The grains had also been charred, not in a way indicative of intentional toasting, but rather by a fire that appears to have burnt down the houses where the grain was stored.

“The scientists also cooked and processed modern wheat and hulled barley, putting the results through the same analysis. The fine details and internal structure of the modern boiled, dried and ground cereals matched what the researchers saw in the ancient Bulgarian grains. I think bulgur could have well been a staple ingredient of Mediterranean cultures in the past,” Valamoti says. “It is very nutritious and easy to make a meal out of it throughout the year, once it is prepared.”

“She says the early southeastern Europeans must have gathered it in the summer, when they could have dried it under the hot sun. Such early, simple preparations passed down through the generations, leading to dishes still enjoyed in the region and other parts of the world today. “Bulgur and trachanas (preparations often consisting of ground grain mixed with milk or yogurt) were staple foods of Greek people until very recently,” she says.

Dr Stefanie Jacomet, a leading archaeobotanist at Basel University‘s Institute of Prehistory and Archaeological Science in Switzerland, says that “until now, simply almost nothing was known about this”, explaining that this latest study is the first to explore ancient cooked cereal in such detail. Other researchers have, however, analysed early evidence for bread-making in the same regions. The first-known bread predates the cereal, so it’s possible the ancients enjoyed some toast with their hot, cooked bulgur.”

Early History of Bread

Harvesting grain

Charles King wrote in “A History of Bread”: “Bread, in one form or another, has been one of the principal forms of food for man from earliest times. The trade of the baker, then, is one of the oldest crafts in the world. Loaves and rolls have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. In the British Museum's Egyptian galleries you can see actual loaves which were made and baked over 5,000 years ago. Also on display are grains of wheat which ripened in those ancient summers under the Pharaohs. Wheat has been found in pits where human settlements flourished 8,000 years ago. Bread, both leavened and unleavened, is mentioned in the Bible many times. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew bread for a staple food even in those days people argued whether white or brown bread was best. [Source: Charles King, “A History of Bread” -]

“Further back, in the Stone Age, people made solid cakes from stone-crushed barley and wheat. A millstone used for grinding corn has been found, that is thought to be 7,500 years old. The ability to sow and reap cereals may be one of the chief causes which led man to dwell in communities, rather than to live a wandering life hunting and herding cattle. -

“According to botanists, wheat, oats, barley and other grains belong to the order of Grasses; nobody has yet found the wild form of grass from which wheat, as we know it, has developed. Like most of the wild grasses, cereal blossoms bear both male and female elements. The young plants are provided with a store of food to ensure their support during the period of germination, and it is in this store of reserve substance that man finds an abundant supply of food.

“When ancient man discovered a food which would keep through the winter months, and could be multiplied in the summer, it could be said that civilization began. He might have a reasonably safe store of food to carry him over, which would give him time to develop other useful skills besides hunting, fishing and cattle-herding. -

“In Old Testament times, all the evidence points to the fact that bread-making, preparing the grain, making the bread and baking it, was the women's work, but in the palaces of kings and princes and in large households, the bakers' duties would be specialised. Bread was leavened, that is, an agent in the form of a 'barm' was added to the dough which caused the mixture to rise in the shape of our familiar loaf. The hurried departure of the Israelites from Egypt, described in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, prevented their bread being leavened as usual; the Jews today commemorate this event by eating unleavened bread on special occasions. The ruins of Pompeii and other buried cities have revealed the kind of bakeries existing in those historic times. There were public bakeries where the poorer people brought their bread to be baked, or from which they could buy ready-baked bread.” -

Which Came First Beer or Bread?

beer making in ancient Egypt
No one knows why man made the switch to agriculture. There at least three dozen major theories. One, the beer theory, argues that people decided to settle down and grow grain so they sit around and drink beer together in small villages. Forty percent of the wheat from Sumerian harvest went to make beer.

Neolithic food consisted of barely bread, beer, and likely a variety of meat and grain dishes. The oldest barely beer have been dated to 3400 B.C. The date was determined by analyzing samples of beer extracted from ancient jars with solvents.

Archaeologists debate which came first bread or beer. Beer starts with sprouted barely, which is moistened and allowed to geminate, a process called malting which converts starches into fermentable sugar called maltose.

Maltose can be fermented producing alcohol as one its byproducts. The same yeast used in fermenting can also be used to make bread. Consuming maltose was one way barley could be consumed without it being hulled, cracked or milled.

Flour Production Dated to 32,000 Years Ago

In 2015, Italian researchers announced that a grinding tool dated to more than 32,000 years ago was used to grind grains into flour. Popular Archaeology reported: “Marta Mariotti Lippi of the University of Florence and colleagues analyzed the residues from an ancient grinding tool to gain further insight into food processing practices of the Early Gravettian culture of ancient Europe. The tool was found in Grotta Paglicci in Southern Italy in 1989 and dates to more than 32,000 years ago. Residue samples from the tool contained a variety of starch grains, and the distribution of the starch grains on the tool surface supported the use of the tool for grinding grain into flour. The presence of swollen, gelatinized starch grains in the residues suggests that the plants were thermally treated before grinding. Such a treatment might have been necessary to accelerate plant drying during the Middle-Upper Paleolithic, when the climate was colder than at present. The most common starch grains in the residues appeared to come from oats, representing the oldest evidence to date of the processing of oats for human consumption. The findings suggest that the inhabitants of Grotta Paglicci may have been the earliest people to use a multi-step process in preparing plants for consumption.[Source: Popular Archaeology, September7, 2015]

Ewen Callaway wrote in Nature: “Early humans ate ground flour 20,000 years before the dawn of agriculture. Flour residues recovered from 30,000-year-old grinding stones found in Italy, Russia and the Czech Republic point to widespread processing and consumption of plant grain, according to a paper published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "It's another nail in the coffin of the idea that hunter–gatherers didn't use plants for food," says Ofer Bar-Yosef, an archaeologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was not involved in the study. Work in recent years has also uncovered a handful of Stone Age sites in the Near East with evidence for plant-eating. [Source: Ewen Callaway, Nature, October 18, 2010]

“The meat-centric view of early modern humans stems partly from the fact that meat-eating leaves a more indelible mark in the archaeological record than omnivory, says Laura Longo, an archaeologist at the University of Siena in Italy and an author on the paper. Stone blades used for hunting and animal bones bearing cut-marks are common finds, whereas plants leave few relics. Complicating matters, archaeologists typically washed the grinding tools used to process plants, removing any preserved plant matter, says Longo.

“Beginning in the early 2000s, Longo and her colleagues started analysing unwashed stone tools from a 28,000-year-old human settlement in central Italy called Bilancino. Patterns of wear on the sandstone tools suggest that they were used for grinding, like a mortar and pestle. The stones were also coated with several kinds of microscopic starch grains. Longo and her colleagues identified the grains based on their shape as belonging to the root of a species of cattail and the grains of a grass called Brachypodium. The researchers also found grinding tools coated with cattail and fern residues at human sites in southern Moravia in the Czech Republic and south of Moscow, all dated to roughly 30,000 years old.

“Unlike Neolithic humans, who domesticated and cultivated grains such as wheat and barley, these hunter–gatherers relied on wild vegetation. However, many of the plants found by Longo and her team were widely distributed, offering a reliable, even nutritious source of food, she says. For example, once ground and cooked, the cattail grains contain nearly as much energy as domesticated cereals, the researchers calculate. Bar-Yosef says that the study proves that flour-making was common to early modern humans. "I'm pretty sure that you're going to have many more cases where there is evidence for the use of plants by humans." Bruce Hardy, a paleoanthropologist at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, expects that flour-making dates back even further than 30,000 years. "This is not isolated to a small group of people. It's a regular part of subsistence for humans," he says. After all, humans, ancient or modern, just aren't equipped to live on a diet of meat alone. "If you get that much meat in your diet not balanced out with other nutrients, you get protein poisoning," says Hardy.”

Earliest Evidence of Bread: From a Natufian Site in Jordan

Charred bread crumbs were found at a Natufian hunter-gatherer site dating from 14,600 to 11,600 years ago have been identified as the earliest examples of bread, suggesting it was being prepared long before the dawn of agriculture. Nicola Davis wrote in The Guardian: “The remains – tiny lumps a few millimetres in size – were discovered by archaeologists at a site in the Black Desert in north-east Jordan. Using radiocarbon-dating of charred plant materials found within the hearths, the team found the fireplaces were used just over 14,000 years ago. “Bread has been seen as a product of agriculturist, settled societies, but our evidence from Jordan now basically predates the onset of plant cultivation … by at least 3,000 years,” said Dr Tobias Richter, co-author of the study from the University of Copenhagen, noting that fully-fledged agriculture in the Levant is believed to have emerged around 8,000 BC. “So bread was being made by hunter-gatherers before they started to cultivate any plants,” he said. [Source: Nicola Davis, The Guardian, July 16, 2018]

Neolithic-style bread oven

“Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Richter and colleagues from Denmark and the UK describe how during excavations between 2012 and 2015 they found the crumbs in the fireplaces of a site used by hunter-gatherers known as Natufians, who foraged for wild grains. Among the remains, the team unearthed small, round tubers of a wetland plant known as club-rush, traces of legumes and plants belonging to the cabbage family, wild cereals including some ground wheat and barley – and 642 small charred lumps. +/

“Analysis of 24 of these lumps revealed they are bread-like – with the others expected to be similar. “They are charred breadcrumbs, sort of what you might find at the bottom of your toaster at home – the sort of stuff that falls off when you put it on high power,” said Richter. Further analyses revealed that 15 of the 24 crumbs contain tissues from cereal plants – probably, says Richter, from barley, einkorn wheat or oats. Some of the crumbs were also found to contain ingredients from other plants, with the team saying club-rush tuber is the most likely candidate. What’s more, the analysis of the crumbs suggests the flour used to make the bread might have been sieved, while the team say the lack of an oven means the bread was probably baked in the ashes of the fire, or on a hot stone. The team say the crumbs appear most likely to be from a sort of unleavened flat bread. +/

“While the newly discovered crumbs are now the earliest bread remains found so far, taking the title from remains found at the site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey and dated to about 9,100 years ago, the team say the food might have emerged even earlier. “Food remains have long been ignored in archaeology, and therefore have not been sufficiently studied,” said Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, first author of the study from the University of Copenhagen. “I’m sure that if we look at older sites, we may find bread-like cereal products during the Paleolithic [for example] 25,000 years ago.” +/

Inedible Bronze Age ‘Cheerios’ Used as Ritual Objects Not Food?

Bronze-age Austrians produced hard Cheerio-like dough rings from wheat and barley around 900 B.C. but the rings were likely used in rituals rather than eaten as food, researchers say. reported: The early O’s come from a site in Austria called Stillfried an der March, an ancient hill fort first excavated in 1978 that was found to contain about 100 grain storage pits. Inside one of the pits, archaeologists found three tiny charred remains of the grain-rings, each a little more than an inch in diameter, along with a dozen larger but similarly ring-shaped loom weights. [Source: Jason Daley,, June 12, 2019]

It wasn’t until recently that archaeologists took a closer look at the charred organic rings, using radiocarbon dating and scanning electron microscope imaging. It turned out that the tiny doughnuts were made from finely ground wheat and barley mixed with water to form a paste. The rings either weren’t baked or were baked at extremely low temperatures just to dry them out. The research appears in the journal PLOS One.

Making bread the Bedouin way

So what, exactly, are the dough rings for? Andreas Heiss, lead author of the study from the Austrian Archaeological Institute, tells Aristos Georgiu at Newsweek they do resemble some modern baked goods, including the tiny bagel-like tarallini eaten in southern Italy and sushki, tiny little bread rings popular in Eastern Europe and Russia. However, those products are baked (not to mention more appetizing than the wheat-paste rings).

The researchers note that producing the little pieces of cereal would have been time consuming, which puts them at odds with most of the other grain processing techniques used at the site. They probably weren’t used as loom weights, either, due to their slightness and relatively brittle design; loom weights are also more easily crafted from clay.

Instead, the working theory is that the cereal bits had a ritual function. “Although the rings were food items, the overall unusual find assemblage suggests that there must have been some further symbolic meaning to them — the assemblage had been deliberately deposited,” Heiss tells Georgiu. “Furthermore, the similarity in shape between the functional clay rings and the dough rings suggests that maybe the latter had been imitations of the clay loom weights.”

Sabrina Imbler at Atlas Obscura reports that loom weights were often placed in Bronze Age graves for the deceased to take with them into the afterlife. In fact, according to the study, not all of the grain storage pits at Stillfried held just grain. One contained seven bodies. It’s possible the ancient Cheerios were placed in a grave, or at least intended for a grave, perhaps to provide a symbolic snack on the way to the underworld.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2024

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