How exactly did bread—an integral part of so many meals and cultures—come to be? The creation of bread was unquestionably one of the key developments in human history. It's no exaggeration to say that without bread, we literally might not be.
In this article, we'll trace the history of one of the world's most important foods, from flatbread to sliced bread, and point out the major milestones along the way.
Fire: 400,000 to 1 Million Years Ago
As with much of early civilization, our knowledge of when people first did what is limited by what we can find evidence for. So for instance, we think that humans first learned to control fire between 400,000 and 1 million years ago. That's a pretty wide range, and it might have been much earlier. But we don't know for sure.
In any case, fire is the first prerequisite for cooking, and bread couldn't exist without it.
Grinding Cereal Grains: 30,000 Years Ago
We have evidence of humans gathering wild grains from at least 100,000 years ago and the earliest evidence of humans grinding these grains dates to around 30,000 years ago in the form of starch residue on stones, probably left over from grinding a combination of grains and roots to form a paste.
What was done with this paste isn't clear. Perhaps it was simply eaten as a gruel, but it may have been cooked on flat rocks heated in a fire to produce a very early flatbread.
The earliest proof we have of humans cooking bread is from 14,000 years ago at a site in Jordan, where scientists uncovered two structures, each containing a large stone fireplace containing the charred remains of breadcrumbs.
This would've been a huge development, since it's much easier to carry around bread than it is to carry gruel. Cooked bread was also easier to digest and the cooking itself unlocked nutrients in the grains. Not to mention, it was much more tasty. So, all around a good thing.
In any case, humans had been grinding cereal grains and cooking them long before the next major milestone, which is...
Agriculture: 9500 B.C.
The discovery that planting a seed made it grow into food must have seemed nothing short of miraculous (and it still is, if you think about it), which no doubt explains why so many ancient deities, like the Egyptian god Neper and the Greek goddess Demeter, were associated with grain and agriculture.
Starting around 9500 B.C., some of the earliest crops grown in the ancient Levant, a region encompassing the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle-East, included wheat, barley, rye, lentils, chickpeas, and flax.
It's also around that time that we begin to find the earliest ovens dedicated to cooking, although these seem to have been more like barbecue pits than actual ovens—pigs had been domesticated by that time as well.
It's not until around 1700 B.C., however, in Greece, that we find a proliferation of small, clay ovens that indicate not just widespread bread baking in individual households but also commercial bakeries.
Earliest Yeast Bread: 1350 B.C.
This is another big one! Yeast, as you know, is a microorganism that eats sugar and produces alcohol and CO2 gas. This gas is what causes bread to rise. And we know that the ancient Egyptians were the first people to brew beer and also the first to make yeast breads.
It's not quite clear which came first—the beer or the bread. The very earliest yeast breads probably came about by accident, when airborne yeasts landed in dough, causing it to rise. But the first intentionally made yeast breads almost certainly came from Egypt, and were either a byproduct of beer brewing ( some of the beer foam was skimmed into the bread dough) or vice-versa (the residual fermentation from making bread was combined with water to make beer). Indeed, the English word "bread" may be related to the word "brew."
Either way, we can be fairly certain that the earliest yeast breads were sourdough and they would've been made by saving a piece of each day's dough and adding it to the next day's, and so on, much like the way bakers today keep their sourdough starter.
Bread Becomes a Commodity: The Roman Empire
Roman bakers took the concept and applied it on a wide scale. A typical Roman bakery could produce enough bread for 2,000 people daily. The ovens were massive: 20 feet in diameter, wood-fired, lined with brick and tile, and fitted with a rotating metal grate on which the loaves were baked.
The Romans also introduced tremendous specialization, using varieties of flours to produce a wide range of products: light breads for the upper classes, darker breads for the lower classes, specific breads for soldiers, sailors, and so on.
Later, in medieval Europe, bread continued to be the basis of the diet, and as in Rome, lighter breads were what the upper classes consumed, while darker breads were what regular people ate. Medieval people also used thick bread rounds as plates, called trenchers, with meat and sauce heaped on top.
Other Bread Milestones
- Focaccia: Originated by the Etruscans (Northern Italy) in the 6th to 5th centuries B.C.
- Pretzels: Invented by European monks in the 6th century A.D.
- Bagels: Created in Poland by Ashkenazi Jews in the 1400s
- Sandwiches: Purportedly invented in the 18th century by John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich
- Baguettes: First developed in 18th-century Paris, later refined and first named "baguette" in 1920
- Sliced Bread: Mechanized bread slicer invented in 1917, in widespread use by 1930
- Texas Toast: 1940s USA