Discovery of 8,600-Year-Old Bread Gives Rise to Half-Baked Claims

Archaeologists excavating at the ancient Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in southern Turkey have uncovered the remains of unbaked, leavened bread dating to around 6600 BCE. Within a furnace structure in the ancient proto-city, archaeologists found wheat, barley, pea seeds, and the remains of spongy globs of unbaked but fermented bread. Though the discovery adds to our growing understanding of how certain foods were cultivated and cooked to feed early communities, Turkish state promotion of the finding as “the world’s oldest bread” raises larger questions about how we define this staple food item, the ways in which Turkey and other countries use archaeological remains for nationalistic ends, and what is at stake in naming the birthplace of “civilization.” 

Bread was life in the ancient world, eventually accounting for between 50 and 70% of daily caloric intake. But what constitutes bread, and who made it first, are still up for debate. For many decades, its creation was closely associated with the transition from hunter-gatherers to farming that scientists believed occurred in the Neolithic period. Çatalhöyük is often seen as the standard example of that pivotal transition to agriculture and in 2017, a study of the cereal remains at the site by archaeobotanist Lara González Carretero pointed to doughy and “bread-like” substances that would have been the earliest yet known.

However, in 2018, researchers working in Jordan found that the invention of bread likely predated agriculture by about 4,000 years. The discovery of flatbread (unleavened bread made from wild grains) at the Natufian hunter-gatherer site of Shubayqa in the Black Desert threatened Çatalhöyük’s bread title. The flatbread dated to around 12,400 BCE and suggested that hunter-gatherers created a type of bread-like, unleavened food from wild cereals that far preceded farming.

This debate is closely linked to bread’s association with the perceived birth of agricultural civilization and farming, questions that have profound nationalistic implications. Anadolu University, a public institution funded by the Turkish state, is currently excavating the section of Çatalhöyük where the bread was unearthed. Following an analysis of the findings, head archaeologist Ali Umut Türkcan gave remarks to the state-run Anadolu Agency in which he proclaimed the Çatalhöyük bread as the oldest in the world and stated, rather tellingly, that “the starting point of food archaeology is Anatolia.” (Türkcan has not responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment.)

Neither the archaeologist’s official comments to the Anadolu Agency nor the press release about the discovery mention Natufian food production, referencing only Egyptian bread, often made of a grain called emmer. Egyptians are believed to have used yeast to leaven their bread beginning around 4000 BCE, but they also made unleavened bread, remains of which still survive today. Mesopotamians have already used yeast for beer-making since about 6000 BCE. As such, Çatalhöyük may indeed qualify as having the oldest extant leavened bread known, but the press release’s bombastic language is much more totalizing, seemingly re-centering Çatalhöyük as the indisputable epicenter for food history. 

Superlative public archaeology statements such as these drive a lot of popular enthusiasm about the premodern world. Of course, the discovery of the ancient bread-in-waiting is a significant one for Çatalhöyük. Nine millennia ago, up to 10,000 inhabitants made their lives in mudbrick houses crammed closely together, socializing and working on their rooftops. They wove textiles from bast fibers, hewed axes from stone, and fed their families with freshly baked bread from their hearths. The 8,600-year-old piece of uncooked dough will allow archaeologists to learn more about Çatalhöyük’s bakers and eaters — it’s an exciting window into the lives of prehistoric Anatolians. 

But the new national focus on Çatalhöyük and southern Anatolian archaeology may be indicative of pushback against recent cultural rhetoric surrounding multiethnic communities in Turkey. Since the 20th century, some Kurds, a persecuted ethnic minority, have identified as “Mesopotamian” — restaurants and bookstores with the ancient civilization’s label abound in the streets of Istanbul. Historian Kate Elizabeth Creasey has argued that the political discourse surrounding ethnonationalism often drives the battle for ancient “heritage” in the country. Who can lay claim to cultural patrimony? The people who have been around the longest, of course. As sociologist Bahar Aykan has noted, “cultural heritage is not something that is just out ‘there,’ free from human concerns and practices”; just as museums are not neutral, neither is heritage.

Turkey’s heritage has long been at the center of culture wars in the Mediterranean. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly instrumentalized Turkish history and archaeology. UNESCO, too, has come under fire for promoting heritage tourism at a cost: local residents suffer from the influx of visitors, ancient monuments suffer from overcrowding, and there is simply no money to spare for conservation. Çatalhöyük has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2012; however, the organization has long incentivized sensationalized headlines by ranking them according to their Outstanding Universal Value paradigm.

As anthropologist and archaeologist Lynn Meskell has argued, this system of “firsts,” “bests,” and “onlys” pays dividends in the social capital of the world heritage and conservation market. And now, the site of Çatalhöyük in particular seems to be part of a larger plan connected to Erdogan and his plans for Turkish agriculture. 

In the last five years, Turkish authorities have asserted more and more control over ancient and excavated foodstuffs in the country. As journalist Joshua Hammer reported for Smithsonian Magazine, in 2019, all excavated ancient seeds in the country were declared property of the Turkish state. Then, in September of 2020, Turkish officials arrived at the British Institute at Ankara and seized its extensive seed catalogue, including many from Çatalhöyük. The seizure by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism was directly connected to the so-called Ancestral Seed Project (Ata Tohum), a nationalist initiative launched by first lady Emine Erdoğan to recover ancient grains and relaunch them as “super foods” on the global market. The hyperbolic narrative surrounding the new finds at Çatalhöyük is much in line with the larger state aim to lay claim to ancient bread as a technology and regrow ancient grains.

“First” is too often cast as “best” in the field of archaeology. In his interview about the new discovery, Türkcan made a number of assertions that were hyperbolic at best. In broadly republished comments, he contended that “Çatalhöyük was already the center of many firsts. The world’s first weavings were already in Çatalhöyük when it was excavated.” While certainly a valuable archaeological site for enthusiasts of prehistory, Çatalhöyük does not lay claim to several of these firsts: much older cloth samples have been found in caves in the Caucasus and in Spain, while paintings in Indonesia, Spain, and France predate those at Çatalhöyük. 

But what about bread, the carbohydrate of choice for the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia? With a few charred chunks of flatbread found in the Black Desert, Jordan has Turkey beat. Unleavened bread is still bread. 

Beyond the ability to challenge esoteric answers at trivia, what do these superlatives grant us? Does it matter which country’s archaeological sites dig up the finest, oldest, or rarest artifacts? By touting Turkey’s millennia of history as the font of agricultural civilization and food history, archaeologists fall in line with the government’s efforts to boost tourism and soft-power heritage politics. They may also be playing into Erdogan’s larger, “hyper-nationalist” moves to recreate and then market ancient “superfoods” from Turkey that capture the growing global “ancient grains” market.

The seemingly innocuous debate over what constitutes bread and who made it first may, at first glance, appear to be a plainly historical question. But it is now becoming rather clear that, at least for the Turkish government, the politics of the ancient bread wars may pan out to be more state-motivated and profit-driven than we think. 

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top