Science is a constantly changing and evolving field. That’s why we live in a world of “theories” and avoid the term “fact.” After all, even Newton’s LAW of gravity was disproved.
So, it’s exciting when a discovery is made that updates or challenges our theories. And lately the media has been abuzz because that’s exactly what a team led by Dr Amaia Arranz-Otaegui did with our understanding of bread. Analyzing food remains in a 14,000 year-old fire pit left by Natufian hunter-gatherers northeast of Jordan, Arranz-Otaegui’s team found charred remains of bread-like food.  Before this discovery, it was believed that bread entered the human diet with the invention of agriculture in the Neolithic era approximately 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.  This new discovery shows that humans were eating bread at least 4,000 years before that.
Analysis of the 24 bread-like food particles indicated it was a flat bread (due to smaller air pockets.) The particles were composed of einkorn wheat (a wild wheat), barley, club-rush tubers and possibly rye, millets or oat. It was clear the grains had been de-husked, crushed, milled, and sieved repeatedly. In short, the bread had required extensive production by these ancient bakers.
Is This a Game-Changer?
Many in the media have been saying this discovery is evidence that bread can now be added to the Paleo Diet because it shows that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers were also bakers. That’s a game-changer if it’s true. But before we start making major changes to the Paleo Diet website, let’s dig a little deeper into this discovery.
First, let’s point out the obvious. The 14,000-year-old bread was from the Epipaleolithic Time. A period that marks the tail end of the Paleolithic era (which started 2.5 million years ago) and preceded the Neolithic era. As the name implies, some consider the Epi-Paleolithic era a transition period after the true Paleolithic era ended about 20,000 years ago. 
So technically, the discovery may not even be Paleo. But let’s assume for a minute that Dr Arranz-Oteagui’s team didn’t find the very first bread ever made and perhaps bread production pre-dates this discovery by another 4-6,000 years – before the end of the Paleolithic era.
When Loren Cordain, Boyd Eaton and other originators of the Paleo Diet started developing the concept, they talked more about a “natural ancestral human diet based on evolutionary trends.”
Needless to say, Dr Cordain’s publishers didn’t find that very catchy. “Paleo” sounded better and fit well because most of the evolutionary changes that defined our natural diet occurred over the 2.5 million years of the Palaeolithic era. But the name and particular period were less important than when these key evolutionary changes occurred. Meaning, whether bread consumption technically overlapped with the Paleolithic era is irrelevant. What’s important is the potential evolutionary impact. And while this is still a debated point, it appears that anatomically and behaviourally modern humans appeared between 200,000 and 40,000 years ago.
In other words, from an evolutionary perspective, the difference between eating bread 9,000 years ago vs even 20,000 to 25,000 years ago is a rounding error. There are many things that are exciting about the discovery of 14,000-year-old bread, but not for an evolutionary biologist.
Was Bread Even a Staple 14,000 Years Ago?
If you told your doctor you ate pizza and hamburgers every night but had some broccoli last Wednesday, I’m sorry to tell you that your doctor isn’t going to note that you “eat a healthy vegetable-based diet.”
The question remains, what were the primary foods in the Natufians’ diet?
Hunter-gatherers constantly faced the dangers of caloric deficits – not consuming as many calories as they expended. Put another way, they had to avoid foods that required more calories to collect and prepare than they provided, a concept known as optimal foraging theory. [4, 5] As a result, Arranz-Otaegui points out that because of the significant production cost of the bread, it was likely a “special food” reserved for occasions like impressing guests. Evidenced by the fact that of the 60,000 plant-based food particles found in the fire pit, only a few hundred were from bread-like foods.
The Natufians, according to Arranz-Otaegui’s team, ate game meat (bones of gazelles, sheep and hares were found throughout the fire pit) and “small-seeded grasses, fruit and nuts. and root foods.”
All of this led her to conclude:
The available archaeobotanical evidence for the Natufian period indicates that cereal exploitation was not common during this time, and it is most likely that cereal-based meals like bread become staples only when agriculture was firmly established.
What Was Game-Changing About this Discovery?
14,000-year-old bread would have had no impact on our evolution or our definition of a true ancestral diet – especially when you consider it was not a staple in hunter-gatherers’ diets. But that doesn’t mean this wasn’t an important discovery.
What is ground-breaking about this discovery is that it flips a commonly held belief on its head –that agriculture was invented first and then humans figured out baking. This study supports the notion that bread pre-dates agriculture. But that notion does make some intuitive sense. It’s highly unlikely our ancestors would not have undertaken the process of domesticating wheat if that had not first experimented with the end-product.
1. Arranz-Otaegui, A., et al., Archaeobotanical evidence reveals the origins of bread 14,400 years ago in northeastern Jordan. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2018. 115(31): p. 7925-7930.
2. Popova, T., Bread remains in archaeological contexts, in Southeast Europe and Anatolia in Prehistory Essays in Honor of Vassil Nikolov on His 65th Anniversary, G.R. Bacvarov K, Editor. p. 519-526.
3. Eaton, S.B., M. Konner, and M. Shostak, Stone agers in the fast lane: chronic degenerative diseases in evolutionary perspective. Am J Med, 1988. 84(4): p. 739-49.
4. Cordain, L., The Paleo diet : lose weight and get healthy by eating the foods you were designed to eat. Rev. ed. 2011, Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley. xv, 266 p.
5. Pyke, G.H., Optimal foraging theory – a critical review. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 1984. 15: p. 523-575.