This oven was used to make bread—thousands of years before agriculture

Thousands of years before the advent of agriculture, people were already making bread. That’s the surprising conclusion of a new study based on a curious find in northeastern Jordan.

At its most basic, bread is the combination of processed cereal grains and water that have been baked, fried, or steamed. The process leaves behind telltale chemical and structural properties that researchers can use to identify the staple food. And that’s just what archaeologists found when they investigated a 14,000-year-old site known as Shubayqa 1 in Jordan’s Black Desert. The inhabitants, who were hunter-gatherers, left their home in a hurry, with the contents of their most recent meal still smoldering in two sunken fireplaces (one pictured).

With the help of a scanning electron microscope, which uses a beam of electrons to return incredibly intricate zoomed-in images, the researchers identified 24 pieces of char that were decidedly breadlike. Though the bread’s exact grain remains unknown, its cellular structure resembles cereal grain species such as wild einkorn, rye, or millet, and it was likely an unleavened, flatbread. Some pieces incorporated root starches as well.

The find is the oldest example of bread yet discovered, the researchers report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and predates the arrival of agriculture in the region by some 4000 years. The discovery suggests knowing how to grow grains isn’t essential to making bread from them, which could help researchers better understand how ancient cultures met their nutritional needs.