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History of Bread

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Before the processing of plant substances into bread developed, man's primate ancestors ate grass and grass seeds along with other wild plant foods. Primate teeth and digestive organs, however, are not well suited to a steady diet of unprocessed grass seeds, and the adoption of a successful grain diet required several technical innovations. These included the use of milling stones (originally simple flattish stones), control of fire, and the discovery that meal mixed with water and subjected to heat produces a palatable food.

Primitive "bread" made from various ground plant substances was probably being prepared well before the emergence of agriculture, the systematic cultivation of useful plants under human management. Several recent non-farming peoples make unleavened cakes, or bannocks, from seeds, nuts, roots, or tubers ground on stones and baked in ashes or earth ovens. Such a development presumably took place in many parts of the world before the changeover from hunting to farming and the systematic raising of plants occurred. But for full utilization of the abundant cereal grasses, the development of true agriculture was a necessary further step.

The advance toward regular grain agriculture and the use of bread as a staple food seems to have been made first in regions with wild plants botanically well suited for domestication and selective improvement. Palestine, where the wild forms of wheat and barley were present, is an example. Acorns from wild oak trees were used for mush or unleavened bread in areas of the Middle East, but oak trees cannot compete with wheat or barley as cultivated plants.

One simple and probably very ancient method of producing bread products is parching or popping grains on a hot surface or in a tray or basket filled with hot rocks. Although often mentioned as the earliest way of making hard grass seeds more edible, this method may not have originated any earlier than the pounding or mashing of seeds, roots, or tubers that were mixed with water and baked into crude cakes. Leavening was at first probably an accidental and repeated occurrence. Spores of wild yeast (a fungus) are fairly common in dusty air and will readily contaminate mush, porridge, wet dough or suspensions of meal in water, leading to fermentation. Contamination by wild yeast spores was necessary to leaven wheat and rye dough, which contain enough gluten in the grain to make high-rising leavened loaves. The really essential discovery of making leavened bread, however, derives from the use of some fermented or sour dough left over from a previous batch. The procedure can be carried on indefinitely.

Evidence for the earliest use of seed grains as archetypal bread products is partly direct. Archaeological sites in both the Old and New worlds have yielded carbonized cereal grains or impressions of grains in clay. Corncobs and impressions of corncobs have been unearthed from sites in the Americas.

Upper Paleolithic and later sites also yield milling slabs that could have been used to grind grains. More conclusive evidence of early bread making are finds of ovens indicating the existence of bread baking.

The first ovens, probably for baking flatbread of wheat or barley, were in use in the Middle East around 7000 B.C., at sites such as Jericho in the Jordan valley and Hacilar in Turkey. At Hacilar ovens dating from about 5600 B.C. were found next to grain bins and grinding slabs.

At Catal Hiiyiik in southern Turkey bread was almost certainly baked and beer brewed between 6500 and 5500 B. c. As the cultivation of wheat and barley expanded into southeastern Europe, the Nile Valley, and eastward across the Iranian Plateau to western Turkestan and the Indian subcontinent, bread baking presumably spread also. Considerably later Swiss lakeshore settlements of late Neolithic times have yielded remains of flatbreads and traces of ovens.

Documents and abundant pictorial art illustrating daily life in ancient times are even more precise evidence of bread making than finds of ovens. Scenes of milling, kneading, and baking, and documents relating to breadstuffs, baking, or the use of bread in religious ceremonies have been found in ancient Egyptian sites. Actual specimens of ancient bread were unearthed from Egyptian tombs, and bread was found preserved in volcanic ash-filled rooms in the ruins of Pompeii. A papyrus dating from about 1200 B.C. lists 30 kinds of bread known in Egypt. A loaf found in a tomb at Deirel Bahri (built about 1500 B.C.) is roughly triangular in shape. Loaves shown in other tomb paintings include some of conical shape placed on altars. Some bread was shaped in fish, bird, or mammal forms, and other bread was colored with earth pigments or sprinkled with seeds.

From the archaeological evidence, it has been determined that in Egypt royal court bread was prepared from finely sifted flour, but the commoners suffered much dental wear from grit from the grinding slabs and the omnipresent desert sand that remained in the coarse flour they used. Large ovens were built on the estates of nobles, and detailed wooden models found in tombs illustrate the steps in preparing bread. Since they had no coined money until the late Iron Age the ancient Egyptians paid workmen and officials in grain, loaves, and beer.

From early documents and pictorial representations archaeologists conclude that bread acquired religious significance as it became a major food and was offered to the gods as a sacrifice just as earlier hunting peoples had offered game or wild fruits. The growing dependence on bread of the early Copper Age civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt was in part intensified by the power and influence of the priests and the temple. Both were supported by tithes of grain.

The early city-states and theocratic kingdoms in these areas maintained storage granaries from which they distributed grain in times of famine, thus creating a great dependence on the religious establishments for food.

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