How did bread get invented?

July 14, 2017

Dear Cecil:

No other question bothers me as much as this one: how did bread come about? I can imagine a pig falling into fire inspiring steaks, or a forgotten stash of grapes found in a time of extreme drought being the idea for wine. But how would anyone see some grain growing and decide they have to reap it, dry it, pulverize it, mix it with water, let it sit, and on and on all the way to a loaf of bread?

Cecil replies:

Try this on for size, Anna: it’s evidence of a divine plan.

Bread is surely among the most obvious food products on earth. (How obvious? I’ll get to that.) I’m not saying our Cro-Magnon ancestors, on first noticing amber waves of grain, immediately thought: Whoa, artisanal baguettes! There were, naturally, some intervening steps. But none of them required any great insight, the addition of yeast possibly excepted. I’m confident that if I gave you a sheaf of harvested wheat and said, here, kid, make something edible out of this, you’d succeed after some trial and error in coming up with a serviceable if unleavened … well, “loaf” might be a bit grand. But I bet you’d cook up a fair approximation of a graham cracker.

And yes, you’d grind the wheat into flour because you had prior knowledge that’s how it was done. But in principle it’s not hard.

OK, but how would anyone know to harvest wheat in the first place? Here we may posit the hand of providence. One imagines the Creator thinking: I’d better give these dim beings a way of feeding themselves they can’t possibly overlook. That brings us to the story of wheat, the world’s most obvious crop.

For background we turn to Jared Diamond, one of academicpursuits.us’s foundational thinkers, and his landmark work Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997).

The (now) seven-plus billion instances of H. sapiens, Diamond informs us, rely for their daily sustenance on a remarkably small number of plants, among them the several domesticated species of wheat, genus Triticum. He writes, “Of the 200,000 wild plant species, only a few thousand are eaten by humans, and just a few hundred of these have been more or less domesticated.”

Of those, Diamond continues, “a mere dozen species account for over 80 percent of the modern world’s annual tonnage of all crops.” Five of the twelve are cereals, wheat included, which provide more than half of all calories consumed by humans. Wheat is, after corn, the second-most produced crop on earth.

The mystery deepens, you’re thinking. With hundreds of thousands of potential wrong turns, how did we find this miracle plant?

Again: trial and error. Ancient hunter-gatherers, we surmise, were often hungry. If you’re desperate you’ll eat anything remotely foodlike. Maybe you find something nutritious. Maybe you puke and die. Either way you’re an example to others. By such means hunter-gatherers acquired detailed knowledge of the local flora and fauna. From there it’s no great leap to farming and stock-raising.

Farming requires domesticated plants. Here it’s helpful to compare wheat with corn (maize). The process by which corn was domesticated is, frankly, baffling. We’re reasonably sure corn originated as the wild Mexican grass called teosinte and was domesticated in prehistoric times. But the two plants bear minimal resemblance. How did ancient farmers patiently breed one into the other without knowing what they’d wind up with or whether it’d be worth it? No one knows.

Wheat, in contrast, was easy. The domesticated plant is similar to the wild version, which grew abundantly in the Fertile Crescent, extending from the Mediterranean to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. And you know what? Early farmers doubtless already knew how to make bread out of it, breadmaking being even more obvious than wheat cultivation. Archaeological evidence shows European hunter-gatherers had been grinding primitive flour (typical ingredient: cattails) for at least 20,000 years before wheat domestication, circa 9000 BC.

Even more providentially, wheat was a component of what Diamond calls a food package (some grains, some legumes, some future livestock), all found in the Fertile Crescent. Collectively they provided a balanced diet — if you had a food package, you had the makings of civilization. The Fertile Crescent’s food package spread throughout much of the world.

Point is, while the evolution of global food production had its challenges, the invention of bread wasn’t among them. The future staff of life might as well have had EAT ME written on it. (OK, writing hadn’t been devised at that point. You know what I mean.) It’s as if a benevolent Force were laying out a development path so obvious even we couldn’t screw it up.

Or not. Confession: I don’t believe in a divine plan, Anna; it was a ruse to walk you through the process of progress. Sure, genius or insane dedication or both have their uses; maybe that’s how we got to corn from teosinte. Other times it’s just ordinary people making no-brainer improvements, one baby step at a time.

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