Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Bread Came Before Beer; Flour Preceded Domestication Of Grains

A comment by Dorian Fuller to a blog post by Dorian Fuller, the leading archaeobotanist in the world, observes that the archaeological evidence shows that flour and bread making were ubiquitous in the earliest days of the Fertile Crescent Neolithic revolution, while beer appears much later in the archaeological record (disproving a fanciful and somewhat tongue in cheek hypothesis to the contrary).

His main post notes that there was cereal trade in Europe during the Mesolithic era, evidenced by cereals in Southern England, a few thousand years before the Neolithic revolution arrived in England allowing cereals to be grown locally there, and just a few centuries after these cereals were domesticated in the Near East and grown there.

This trade is somewhat less surprising when we note, while we are on the subject of floor and cereals and the sequence in which innovations took place, that flours made from wild grains long predate the domestication of cereals.

Flour is found, for example, in Utah about 10,000 years BP (long before any cereals were domesticated in the New World), and in Tuscany about 25,000 years BP, about 15,000 years before the Neolithic revolution in the Fertile Crescent.
Hunter-gatherers were turning wild plants into flour long before farming was invented.

A find in Utah [citing this source] shows flour being produced 10,000 years ago (long before plants were domesticated in the New World). The "milled seeds include sage, salt bush and various grasses, which were processed on grindstones."

Research at the "Gravettian site of Bilancino, in Tuscany, Italy, which dates to about 25,000 BP uncal [about 28,000 BP on a calibrated basis]. . . . includes notably charcoal, pollen and starch grain recovered from the surface of a grindstone. . . . [T]he occupants of Bilancino had been grinding cattail (Typha latifolia), likely its roots, as well as wild grasses to produce flour."

Why does this matter?
[I]t "implies the availability of an elaborate product, a flour, with high energy content, that is rich in carbohydrates, easily storable and transportable, to make a kind of bread (biscuits) or a porridge" . . . This means that plant material could be preserved and stored for much longer periods of time, which effectively can provide carbs during seasons such as winter during which they are normally difficult if not impossible to obtain. Also, it provides a subsistence items that serves as a buffer against the fluctuating availability of other types of subsitence resources, such as animal tissue. Lastly, because flour is easily ingested and digested, it also provides a foodstuff that both very young and very old members of a group can consume - and maybe even produce while adults are off procuring other things. This means that survival to adulthood and into old age can be facilitated, which has the potential of significantly reorganizing the way labor is divided within a society, and increasing the generational knowledge available to given forager groups.
These finds also further supports the evidence from a variety of sources that modern humans may have had proto-agricultural societies existed for thousands of years before plants were domesticated in a way that made them more useful and permitted a more settled lifestyle with more dense populations.
UPDATE December 13, 2015.  The evidence for Mesolithic cereal trade in Europe turns out to have been flat wrong and the product of inaccurate dating of the evidence.


bellbeakerblogger said...

Great topic. Indians in my area milled mesquite beans to make bread cakes. I agree with this, flour and porridge could old as modern man.

It wouldn't surprise me if some of the oldest round rock tools are actually mortars

Marnie said...

Wild rice cultivation and storage (as well as other crops) by the Ojibwe and other Woodland descended peoples of North America is another indication that gathering and food preservation functioned as a major food source for pre-Neolithic people.

A good reference on this is "Holding Our World Together" by Brenda J. Child.

bellbeakerblogger said...


Tom Warner said...

Funny issue, but didn't whoever said "beer came before bread" actually mean "beer came before leavened bread."?

That is, it seems plausible that people first learned to control yeast in order to make beer, and only after that realized it also did wonders for bread.

I can't imagine anyone could really believe that beer came before unleavened bread.

Graham Dineley said...

In order to understand how beer could come before bread, one has to understand how beer is made. It is made from malt sugars. The desire for these sugars motivated the agricultural revolution. Malt is not "toasted sprouted barley" as the archaeobotanists believe, look it up. It is actually far easier to make malt sugars from cereals than flour for bread, but one has to understand malt first. Sadly the archaeobotanists do not understand malt, for they read the Scholarly and Academic literature only, which is written by people who have never seen or done it. Check it out, who do you believe, those who do it or those who just make it up?