What is the real palaeo diet, and who invented bread? Archaeological findings on eating and drinking in the past.

Rotsschilderingen van Minateda, KU Leuven, Belgium, Public Domain Marked

Archaeology can give great insight into what processes have made us the humans we are today. Seemingly small things have hugely influenced our contemporary lives, and maybe the most important one is the invention of cooking. Richard Wrangham, professor of biological anthropology, in his book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, describes how cooking reduced the caloric cost of digestion and increased the efficiency of food consumption. According to Wrangham, homo erectus (who lived between about 1.89 million and 143,000 years ago), evolved to develop a smaller, more efficient digestive tract that freed up the energy to enable brain growth.1 This was thanks to Homo Erectus being able to cook their food, setting the stage for modern humans. But what, and how, did these palaeolithic humans cook?

two Coptic bread loaves, Medelhavsmuseet, Sweden, CC BY-NC-ND.

Who invented bread and pancakes?

Amaia Arranz Otaegui, a postdoctoral researcher from University of Copenhagen and her colleagues have found archaeobotanical evidence revealing the origins of bread 14,400 years ago in north-eastern Jordan. That’s about 4,000 years before agriculture!2 “Our work shows that bread was not a product of settled, complex societies but of Paleolithic hunter-gatherer society,” said Otaegui for The Washington Post. One of Otaegui’s articles poses that “Interdisciplinary analysis indicates the use of some of the “founder crops” of southwest Asian agriculture (like wild einkorn) and root foods (e.g. club-rush tubers) to produce flat bread-like products.”

The first known flatbread comes from Shubayqa 1, a Natufian hunter-gatherer site. Through cultural diffusion, and over time, these first flatbreads have evolved into the pizzas, pita, puri, pane carasau, chapati and tortillas we know and love today.

Fragment of a relief. Two men with a bull. Medelhavsmuseet, Sweden, CC BY-NC-ND

How humans have evolved to eat meat is another area of discussion and debate among archaeologists. Humans might have resorted to meat eating as a necessary adaptation to their changing environment, but it might also have been a milestone change that allowed for quick development of the human brain. Katherine Milton of the University of California says that “early humans were forced into this dietary change because the forests of Africa were receding and these hominids simply couldn’t get enough plant matter to stay alive”.3 Meredith F. Small from Cornell University adds that “for these few million years, humans apparently stuffed themselves with raw meat. And then somewhere, somehow, somebody offered it up cooked.”4

So what about the palaeo diet?

The palaeo diet is a diet based on the idea that your body benefits most from the same foods that palaeolithic humans ate. It, among others, cuts starchy vegetables, cereal grains, and legumes in favour of unprocessed meat, nuts and seeds, and a lot of fruits and veggies.5 But archaeological research shows that maybe flatbreads and other grain products might have been a bigger part of the palaeolithic diet after all, and that meat might have played a smaller role than first thought in our ancestors’ daily meals. Ann Gibbons at National Geographic mentions the high level of plant-based food in hunter-gatherers societies: “It’s true that hunter-gatherers around the world crave meat more than any other food and usually get around 30 percent of their annual calories from animals. But most also endure lean times when they eat less than a handful of meat each week.”6 The palaeo diet might not be so palaeo after all, as archaeological research keeps unearthing new evidence and formulating new hypotheses about the evolution of our species. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the palaeo diet isn’t healthy, but it does show interesting insights into the constantly changing landscape of archaeology.

By Rimvydas Laužikas,
University of Vilnius

Explore more archaeology at Europeana Collections

boogschutters uit rotstekeningen, KU Leuven, Belgium, Public Domain Marked
  1. Wrangham, R. (2009). Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. London.
  2. Arranz-Otaegui, A.,  Gonzalez Carretero, L.,  Ramsey, M.N., Fuller, D. Q.,  Richter, T. (2018). Archaeobotanical evidence reveals the origins of bread 14,400 years ago in northeastern Jordan. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115 (31), 7925-7930. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1801071115.
  3. Milton, K. (1999). A hypothesis to explain the role of meat‐eating in human evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology, 8, 11-21. Doi:10.1002/(SICI)1520-6505(1999)8:1<11::AID-EVAN6>3.0.CO;2-M.
  4. Small, M. F. (2008). Outdoor BBQ: A 700,000-year-old Ritual. Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/2650-outdoor-bbq-700-000-year-ritual.html
  5. Cordain, L. (2018). Ten questions about the Paleo Diet. The Paleo Diet. https://thepaleodiet.com/temp-title-dr-cordain-interview/.
  6. Gibbons, A. (2014). The Evolution of Diet. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/evolution-of-diet/

2 thoughts on “What is the real palaeo diet, and who invented bread? Archaeological findings on eating and drinking in the past.

  1. I love how many articles tout the “discovery of bread” as being somewhere in the world that isn’t Australia. You might be interested in this article from the Australian Museum which talks about the age of grinding stones that would have been used to grind seed to make bread 30,000 years ago. https://australianmuseum.net.au/blog-archive/science/food-culture-aboriginal-bread/

    Or perhaps this other article which puts the invention of bread in Australia back to 36,000 years ago https://www.sbs.com.au/food/article/2016/10/06/were-indigenous-australians-worlds-first-bakers

    In light of this, you might want to edit your article with these corrections.

    1. Well said Rebecca. Indigenous Australians have long been portrayed as unsophisticated hunter gatherers in order to support the doctrine of Terra Nullius. Yet they have been farming the land and building (and maintaining) complex permanent structures, such as Ngunnhu, the Brewarrina fish traps which are the oldest human constructed structures on the planet, for at least 40,000 years. In fact, the 40,000 year mark for bread could be a result of the technical limitations of carbon dating. The real number may be much older…

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