Bread from Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, Anchorage
The Aboriginals had bread, and I wanted to know more. I thought of bread as a Middle Eastern invention. How could it have gotten to Australia before the arrival of Dutch explorers in the early 1600s, and the first English settlement in 1788?
Recent discoveries of grindstones suggest that the Australian Aboriginal peoples made bread 50,000 years ago. Some Aboriginal groups say that the creator of the damper (bread) seeds was Ngurlu, the crested pigeon, who collected them and left them for people. The Aboriginals picked up the seeds, ground them between stones, mixed the flour with water, flattened balls of dough into disks, and baked them in hot ashes. Ngurlu is associated specifically with spinifex seeds, but also more generally with other seeds used for bread. Based on this, and the fact that grindstones elsewhere fdate from only about 36,000 years ago, some argue that the Aboriginals invented bread.
Crested pigeon, Sydney, Australia
Or was it people in Mozambique who invented bread 100,000 years ago? Starch grains on stone tools found in caves there suggests that their inhabitants were grinding sorghum (a type of grass) seeds around 105,000 years ago. Skeptics contend that the other technologies needed to harvest seeds and turn them into digestible food did not yet exist, so it is unlikely that people were eating the sorghum. Our present knowledge can't settle the question one way or the other.
Grindstones with starch seeds (oats, and other grains) date from about 36,000 years ago. Stones found in Italy, Russia, and the Czech Republic from 33,000 to 30,000 years ago also demonstrate that people were grinding seeds in many places, and that bread itself is much older than agriculture.
We may not have a definitive answer in our lifetimes, but we do know that grinding seeds, nuts, and roots releases much more nourishment than eating them whole. Mixing the dry flour or paste with water makes the seeds even more edible, and flattening the ball of dough to a thin disk allows it to bake all of the way through in the ashes, maximizing the usefulness and tastiness. People have done this for tens of thousands of years.
There might be connections among all of these stories. How did Ngurlu's people get to Australia? At the present, it looks as if modern humans, Homo sapiens, began to migrate out of Africa about 70,000 years ago. This lends more credence to the possibility that the people who were grinding seeds in Mozambique 100,000 years ago took their technologies with them when they left home. Australian Aboriginals, who are more closely related to Africans than to Asians or Europeans, probably migrated through Asia soon after leaving Africa -- perhaps discovering seeds and roots to grind for bread along the way.
The small group of people who arrived in northern Australia moved south over the next thousand years, setting fires to burn the forests and make the land and plants more habitable for themselves. The change in landscape, and hunting by the new occupants drove giant mammals like huge wombats and marsupial lions, to extinction. The fires changed the landscape from forests that thrived in the low-water environment to desert throughout most of the interior. Some of the remaining plants, including spinifex and millet, provided seeds for making bread.
The Aboriginals were still baking bush bread or seedcakes when Captain James Cook first set foot on their shores in 1777, and when the first prison ship dropped people off to create a colony at Botany Bay (now part of Sydney). The story of the transition from bush bread to damper (the English name for unleavened bread baked in the ashes) is in the next post.
Seed Dreaming painting