How did the cultivation of wheat and the history of bread making change humans' lives? How were the earliest forms of bread made?

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Most anthropologists believe that the domestication and cultivation of wheat (and other grains) marks the transition of human beings from nomadic to domesticated life. When bread became a staple of the human diet, people became stationary. In parts of the world where grain was not feasibly milled, or desired, nomadic life continued.  

The earliest forms of bread were not the loaves with which we are now familiar; instead, the earliest forms of bread were porridges and/or flat cakes. In these forms, grain was mashed with water, or more uncommonly, milk. The mash was then eaten raw or cooked. As porridges became thicker, this paste was then cooked, sometimes on hot rocks and sometimes on subterranean ovens.  This solid product allowed people to take the bread from place to place. Some modern forms that resemble these earliest of breads include Indian naan, pita bread, and pizza.

For thousands of years, breads were not leavened.  Leavening is a process that adds yeast to dough in order to make it rise, a process that began some seven thousand years ago. But to leave out the many steps that came between porridge-pastes and leavening does an injustice to the history of bread.

About 8000 B.C.E. the first grinding stone called a “quern” used to crush grain, was invented in Egypt.  Egyptians began organized grain production between 5000 and 3700 BCE.  When this happened, bread became a staple food, used not only in day-to-day living but also in trade.  Because of this trading activity, bread soon became a feature in many cultures outside of Egypt.

As time went on, Egyptians learned how to make cultivate more tolerant forms of wheat (ones that survived the elements better).  By about 3000 BCE, due in part to the warm climate and the Egyptian skill in brewing beer, wild yeasts were added to the flour mixtures, thus, historians believe, creating the first sourdoughs.  Egyptian bakers recognized the potential in the fermentation process and began purposefully creating the first leavened breads.  The first intentional sourdoughs were commonly available throughout the Middle East by 2500 BCE.

The use of horses and the invention of the first iron plowshares (around 1500 BCE) further enhanced the availability and popularity of bread.  By 500 BCE, the circular quern was integral for large-scale milling and continued to be the basis for mass production until the Industrial Revolution; it continues to be the method of milling used in modern-day “stone-ground” flours. But it was the invention of the water mill by the Greeks circa 450 BCE that culinary historians credit with bread baking as an art form.

About this same time in Rome, (150 BCE), the first bakers guilds were formed. Now bread was becoming a way to make a social statement. Peasants ate whole wheat and bran breads; the wealthy ate the more labor-intensive, and therefore expensive and exclusive, white breads. This attitude continued well into the twentieth century across Europe and North America.  Today, ironically, the complete reverse is true.  White breads are eaten almost exclusively by the lower classes, and the elite buy whole grains and dark breads.

The next two “big” changes in regard to bread production were first, the invention of a windmill prototype by the Persians in 600 BCE.  In 1834, the Swiss invented the roller mill. This was important because, instead of crushing the grain, a steel roller mill breaks open the grain, separating the germ, bran, and endosperm.  This led to consistency in the milled product.

These innovations made mass production the norm.  By the early twentieth century, bread flour was typically bleached and sterilized, making the loaves white and soft.  It was also enriched with vitamins and minerals which had been destroyed in the milling process. While these innovations made bread more widely and cheaply available, it also altered the taste and appearance (many people would argue for the worse).  Money may speak louder than anecdote.  Consider these statistics.  In 1910, per capita consumption of bread and bread products was about 210 pounds; in 1961, that number had been cut nearly in half, to 110 pounds, on average, per person.  Although bread sales have climbed somewhat, they have not reached that early twentieth century zenith. In fact, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture “[w]heat consumption fell from an estimated 146.3 pounds per person in 2000 to a low of 133.4 pounds in the mid-2000s, recovered slightly, then dropped back to 132.5 pounds per person for 2011.” 

SourceEncyclopedia of Food & Culture, ©2003 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The cultivation of wheat and the making of bread changed human lives in very important ways.  The beginning of farming is seen as a revolution in human history.  It is sometimes called the Neolithic Revolution.  This indicates how drastically it changed human life.

Before people farmed, they were hunter-gatherers.  They could not typically stay in one place for a very long time.  They could not have large populations of people.   Essentially everyone in a community had to be involved in getting food.  These things made it very difficult for them to advance technologically.  If people are constantly involved in getting food, they cannot specialize in things like the creation of tools.  If people have to move around all the time, they cannot create large pieces of technology (even something as simple as a spinning wheel and a loom) because they cannot carry those things with them.  If their populations are small, they will not have as many people who might create technology.

All of this changed when wheat was first cultivated (in places where it can be grown) and bread was first made.  The cultivation of wheat and the making of bread allowed larger groups of people to live together in sedentary communities.  This allowed them to develop technologies.  It allowed them to have large societies that came to have things like governments.  All of these are very important changes.

In these ways, the growing of wheat and making of bread had major effects on human life.

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