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Archeologists Dig Into Bread's Prehistory

June 14, 1998|PATRICK QUINN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ATHENS, Greece — The ancient Greeks may have been baking high-quality bread long before commonly thought.

That's the conclusion of two British experts who are studying what people ate in the days before recorded history and how their choice of food may have shaped the destiny of humanity.

"We have discovered that it is possible to obtain small traces of DNA from preserved wheat seeds, some dating back to the earliest stages of agriculture," researchers Terry Brown and Glynis Jones said in their first report on their findings.

The recent report, "New Ways with Old Wheats," suggests that Bronze Age Greeks could have begun baking high-quality bread as early as 3300 B.C. That is centuries before experts have believed the types of wheat needed to produce bread similar to modern varieties existed.

Brown, a molecular biologist at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, and Jones, an archeobotanist at the University of Sheffield, hope to use modern DNA techniques to answer questions about such things as how farming spread, a key factor in the progress of ancient civilizations.

Bread has played a great role in the development of civilization and religion. Homer talked about it. Egyptian pyramid builders ate it. The Bible says Jesus used it to feed the multitudes. Roman emperors pacified the masses with "bread and circuses."

"All that is different now is the way [bread is] manufactured. It's exactly the same product now as it was during Roman times," said John Marchant, principal lecturer at London's National Bakeries School.

In their study, Brown and Jones looked at 3,300-year-old charred wheat grains discovered in Assiros, a Bronze Age backwater in northern Greece.

What they found was that the Bronze Age wheat had good bread-making qualities, something not thought possible at the time.

Bread wheat is not naturally occurring and had to be developed through crossbreeding. Before learning how to make bread, prehistoric peoples consumed wheat as meal or gruel.

The findings also suggest wheat has been domesticated twice and in two different places, rather than only once as was previously believed, the two experts said.

Wheat was thought to have first been domesticated about 8000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent, an area that crosses parts of modern Iraq, Iran and Jordan. But a parallel development appears to have been going on in northern Greece, the researchers said.

The findings could alter the way historians render the time line and location of ancient farming methods and technology.

Another discovery in the ancient wheat was DNA markers suggesting a husked variety known as spelt, which experts previously did not think had become known in the Mediterranean area until the 1st century of the Christian era.

"Spelt's been around a long time," said Brian Park, a consultant with Britain's Allied Mills. "It's a very old variety still milled in Germany and Holland. It is perceived to be healthier."

He said the ancient spelt would have made a "squat, small loaf with a close crumb structure."

Park said his company is "milling spelt on millstones and are looking to market it" as a health food product. "Stone ground, just like in those ancient days."

There has been an unexpected contemporary "spinoff" from the DNA research, Brown said.

Because it can be difficult to differentiate between types of processed wheat, the DNA technique will let millers test a grain shipment's makeup. This will allow them, for example, to determine if more expensive durum wheat used to make pasta has been adulterated with cheaper bread wheat.

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