Dr. David Eitam peeled the hull of wild barley grains in a narrow conical mortar with a long wooden pestle during the experiment. Dr. David Eitam peeled the hull of wild barley grains in a narrow conical mortar with a long wooden pestle during the experiment. Dr. David Eitam peeled the hull of wild barley grains in a narrow conical mortar with a long wooden pestle during the experiment. (Photo: Sara Katzburg)

Scientists use 12,500-year-old recipe to bake bread

New research reveals details about our ancient domestic life.

Take that, Paleo Diet! Forget eating like your ancient ancestors; a team of researchers has taken the idea one step further by cooking like them.

Using 12,500-year-old conical mortars carved into bedrock, the team, consisting of independent researchers as well as faculty members from Israel's Bar-Ilan University and Harvard University in Boston, reconstructed the process once used to turn wild barley into groat meals, as well as a delicacy they termed "proto-pita" – small loaves of coal-baked, unleavened bread.

Prof. Mordechai Kislev and Dr. David Eitam examining the peeled wild barley grains in a sieve during the experiment.Professor Mordechai Kislev (right) and Dr. David Eitam examine the peeled wild barley grains in a sieve during the experiment. (Photo: Sara Katzburg)

The objective of the study, conducted at Huzuq Musa, once inhabited by Natufians and located in Israel's Jordan Valley, was to resolve a long-standing mystery about thousands of cone-shaped hollows carved into the bedrock throughout the region.

"The conical, human-made hollows, found all over Southeast Asia, were noticed by archaeologists decades ago, but there was no agreement about their function," said Professor Mordechai Kislev, a member of Bar-Ilan University's Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences. "Assuming they were mortars used for the processing of plant food, my colleagues -– under the direction of archaeologist Dr. David Eitam – decided to use these ancient stone tools, along with period-appropriate items such wooden pestles, sticks and sieves, to reconstruct how the work was done."

Prof. Mordehai Kislev (with back to the camera), the physicist Adiel Karly and Dr. David Eitam (in middle) during the experiment in the prehistoric site of Huzuq.Mordechai Kislev (left), physicist Adiel Karly and Dr. David Eitam (in middle) during the experiment in the prehistoric site of Huzuq. (Photo: Sara Katzburg)

Most experts agree that cereal domestication was achieved about 10,500 years ago, roughly 2,000 to 3,000 years before sedentary farming communities were established.

Professor Ofer Bar-Yosef, an emeritus faculty member at Harvard, said that the study complemented nearly 80 years of investigations suggesting that the Natufians – although subsisting as a hunter-gatherer society – were capable of producing large quantities of groat meals from roasted, "half green" barley grain.

"With the development of a new agro-technological system, including threshing floors, peeling utensils and milling devices, the Natufians bequeathed to their Neolithic successors a technical advancement that contributed to the establishment of agricultural societies," Bar-Yosef said.

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