Biblical Archaeology Review 45:1, January/February 2019

Strata: Then and Now: A Slice of Ancient Life

In 2017, archaeologists discovered evidence of the world’s oldest bread, dated to 12,400 B.C.E., at Shubayqa 1, located in the Black Desert of northeastern Jordan. The site, used by the Natufian hunter-gatherer culture, was abandoned in a hurry—with the bread still cooking in the oven. Researchers used electron microscopes to analyze the charred remains. Although they cannot determine exactly what grain was used, the structure resembles cereal grains, such as einkorn, mullet, or rye. The bread from Shubayqa 1 predates agriculture in the region by some 4,000 years, showing people didn’t need to grow grain to use it.

Thirteen thousand years later, in medieval Europe, bread was still being baked. By this time, the type of grain used to make breads served as a status symbol, as various grains were grown. If you were wealthy, you could afford the finest grains, such as wheat flour. This bread—called manchets—was white in color and similar to modern white loaves. Middle- to low-class people ate maslin—wheat bread made with an admixture of rye or barley. The lowest classes, those suffering from poverty, ate black bread made of whatever could be found, including grains, hazelnuts, barley, or oats.

Today, the types and quality of bread we can access depends on the stock of nearby bakeries and grocery stores. Gone are the days of harvesting our own wheat or using bread to define status. We can buy (or make) our bread at will and enjoy it in a variety of ways—in sandwiches, with oils and dips, or simply as toast.

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