Bread: Food That Shaped Human Civilisation

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 22 2021
Look Bread: Food That Shaped Human Civilisation

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy  Ceylon Today Features 

Bread is one of the most popular and most loved foods in the world. It is eaten almost all over the world in many different forms. Bread is also a main food of almost half of the world population today and it provides energy that we need in the form of carbohydrates and essential nutrients, dietary fibre and phytochemicals. Bread is also known as one of the most ancient foods of the world as its history can be dated back to approximately 10000 years.

 It is simply a paste of flour and water, baked or cooked that has actually shaped the story of mankind. Surprised how bread could have shaped our history? Let’s find out. For, bread lovers, here is the history of this amazing food. 

What is bread? 

Bread is basically flour and water. But it can be cooked in many ways, adding more ingredients and cooking, baking or frying it. They come in different sizes and shapes. The flour could be wheat, maize or barley. 

For thousands of years the basic ingredients of bread have not changed much. Before we move further it must be noted that we often hear people say eating bread is not good. However, the problem is not with bread, rather the way bread is made today. What people add to make bread today, in commercial bread-making has made it unhealthy. If not, bread eaten like in the past is nutritious, delicious and of course helped human civilisation grow. 

History and Archaeology 

According to archaeological data, the earliest bread was made in the Middle East in around 8000 BCE. Remains of plant roots found in Jordan, which is assumed to be 14600 to 11600 years old, suggests that wheat was cultivated during this time and bread must have been made using wheat. This new suggestion predated the earliest known making of bread. 

Archaeologists believe that wheat was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent (a region in the near Middle East). Although it was earlier believed that bread was first eaten 10,000 years ago, recent archaeology discoveries challenged this belief. One study says that bread was eaten 30,000 years ago in Europe.

 According to Phys, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggested that processing starch grains, possibly grinding them into flour was a widespread practice across Europe, contrary to popular belief that the Palaeolithic man was primarily a meat eater. 

It also says that grains recovered from grindstones and pestle grinders at three sites in Italy, Russia and the Czech Republic appeared to come mostly from starchy cattails and ferns, which researchers said would provide a significant source of carbohydrates and energy. 

Another research revealed that a female archaeologist working on an excavation site in Jordan discovered the oldest known bread remains. This remarkable discovery was made by Amaia Arranz-Otaegui an archaeobotanist from the University of Copenhagen. She was collecting dinner leftovers of the Natufians, a hunter-gatherer tribe that lived in the area more than 14,000 years ago during the Epipaleolithic time (a period between the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras).

 These crumbs were analysed by the team and they discovered that the Natufians were sophisticated cooks. Their flour was made from wild wheat and the roots of clubrush tubers (a flowering plant) and barley and oats were also mixed with the flour. This study also revealed that their bread was made as flatbread and was baked in ovens as we do today in tandoori ovens, which means that they were pressed into the walls of the fireplace pits (similar to tandoori ovens). Also, mustard seeds were found in some of the bread remains excavated in other sites nearby.

 Remains of bread are discovered in ancient tombs in Egypt and loaves of bread can be seen in ancient Egypt paintings. Breadmaking is depicted in detail in these paintings. In the past some cultures used beer in bread-making while cultures that drank wine, used wine in the bread. Greeks also used to eat bread and it is believed that the freestanding oven was first made in ancient Greece. In the Deipnosophistae (a 3rd century Greek literary work) the author Athenaeus mentions several names of bread such bread, cakes, and pastries that was eaten at that time and also griddle cakes, honey-and-oil bread, mushroom-shaped loaves covered in poppy seeds are mentioned. 

Various types of bread in the ancient world

 In Asia, bread is a popular food and it is eaten in various forms. In the Middle East bread is the main food. Iranian and Arabian breads are popular all over the world. Sangak, Barbari, Lavash and Taftoon are to name a few popular Iranian breads. In central Asia and Middle East types of bread are eaten with curries as a main meal. Indian breads come in a large number of varieties and tastes. Paratha, chapati, naan, poori and tandoori rotis of India come in different flavours and cooked styles. These are unleavened flatbreads made of whole wheat flour. There are some made of maize flour too. Usually these are eaten with curries or a filling. In China, the traditional bread is called Mantou. 

Also, Baozi and Kompyang are Chinese types of bread. In Sri Lanka bread was introduced during the time of the Portuguese and since then bread has become popular. Bread baked in ovens at bakers and various types of rolls, pastries, cakes and breads are popular among Sri Lankans. Roast pan which is a popular and delicious type of bread is eaten widely in Sri Lanka. 

Also, traditional rotis such as pol roti which is made with flour and coconut and kurakkan roti which is made with kurakkan flour can be seen among the traditional breads of the country. Apart from that Indian breads and European breads are immensely popular in Sri Lanka today. In Europe, bread is the main food there. Hence a large number of bread varieties can be seen in Europe eaten daily. In Mexico Tortillas are the staple bread and bread rolls are popular among many. 

Sopaipillas are another popular type of bread widely eaten in Latin America. Bolillo rolls and Pan dulce are other popular breads in Mexico. Pan de piso and Pan serrano are eaten in Peru. A sweet bread called Bizcochos is eaten in Peru while a bread made of potatoes is popular among the people in the Andes. Arepa, a bread made of corn flour, is widely eaten in Venezuela.

 In some parts of Latin America bread is made with flour and cheese. A large number of delicious breads can be seen across Latin America made in different ways and eaten on different occasions. Some of these are eaten as a main meal while some are eaten as a snack during tea or with hot chocolate. In Africa bread has been an ancient food since the times of the pharaohs and in ancient Ethiopia and Somalia.

 Injera is a bread made from the grain called Teff and is eaten in Ethiopia. The round bread in Egypt today has hardly changed from the times of the Pharaohs. North America also is home to a variety of breads mainly influenced by Europe. The Native American Cornbread is made of corn flour. 

How it shaped our history 

Among all the types of foods in the world, how and why bread has changed the face of human history? Historians believe that bread is responsible for the formation of early human settlements. Domestication of plants resulted in forming agricultural societies. 

As wheat was domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, agriculture spread across the Middle East, Central Asia and to Europe. Gradually these settled agricultural communities evolved into towns and civilisation developed. While these geographical locations developed urban civilisations with Wheat, Asia did so with Rice and the Americas did so with Maize. 

Bread culture 

Bread is not merely a food. As bread played a vital role in establishing civilisation, it is also important in many cultures, especially in the western cultures and that of which are mainly based on Christianity, Abrahamic religions and Judaism. 

Medicinal use of bread in ancient times

 In a recent document I watched, Egyptologist and an honorary Visiting Professor in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, Joann Fletcher said that, the ancient Egyptians used mouldy bread to treat infections on skin wounds and that in the 20th century, penicillin which was growing on bread was the reason for this medicinal use in ancient times. So, next time you eat bread, remember that it carries an ageold great legacy and that bread is responsible for changing the lives of our ancestors.

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 22 2021

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