Rachel Laudan

The Art of Making Bread in the Stone Age

I thought it was about time I had a new header more appropriate for a historian.  And since I enjoy collecting and dissecting pictures of people grinding grains, I’ve put up this engraving entitled “L’art du fair pain à l’âge de pierre” (The Art of Making Bread in the Stone Age).

What’s so great about this engraving is that it is essentially right.  It puts making bread, and that means grinding, right up front.  Not farming, not the hard lot of those who worked the fields, but breadmaking and grinding.

Because when you think about it, no one would have bothered to farm cereals unless they had already discovered how to do something with those cereals.  And cereals are beastly, recalcitrant things, covered with inedible coatings that have to be laboriously removed, and even then so hard and so small that working with them is onerous.

And unremitting because it has to be done every day.  OK, OK, farming is hard, I don’t deny it, especially during sowing and harvest.  But the labor lets up for long periods.  Grinding doesn’t.  Grains once ground go rancid fairly quickly because of the oil that is released.  So grinding goes on day after day, season after season, year after year.

Yet the very features that made grains so difficult to turn into food, their hardness and dryness, made them easy to store and easy to transport.  So it was grains, and pretty much grains alone, that could support cities and states.

In short, grinding was the necessary (though not the sufficient) condition for farming and for cities and for states.

Figuier Metate

“The Art of Making Bread in the Stone Age” from Figuier, World Before the Deluge, 1867

So let’s look at the story behind this prescient illustration. In 1863, Louis Figuier, the Carl Sagan or Steve Gould of mid-nineteenth century science, had published La terre avant le deluge (The World Before the Deluge).  In it he explained to his readers everything that geologists had discovered about the history of the earth from the very first fossils, through the vegetation of the Carboniferous, the dinosaurs, and early and very recent humans.

Louis Figuier, nineteenth-century science popularizer

Louis Figuier, nineteenth-century science popularizer

His illustrator,  Édouard Riou, produced dramatic images. His engraving of the fight between an Iguanodon and Megalosaurus shaped the dinosaur fantasies of generations of children.

Nineteenth century depiction of dinosaurs

Fight between Iguanodon and Megalosaurus by Édouard Rio for Figuier, La terre avant le deluge. 1863.

Indeed since Riou illustrated Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, he must have had quite an effect on the historical and geographical imagination of nineteenth century readers.

In Figuier’s The World Before the Deluge, he’d shown early man in an idyllic garden-of-eden type setting, living peaceably alongside the animals, before the Deluge, which many people were quick to associate with Noah’s Flood, swept across the earth.

Man's first appearance on earth in Figuier's popularisation of nineteenth-century geology

The First Appearance of Man by Édouard Riou. Figuier, La terre avant le deluge (1863).

The appearance of this idyllic picture of pre-deluge man in the 1863 edition of The World Before the Deluge was terrible timing.  In the same year, the British geologist, Charles Lyell, who formerly had repudiated evolution, the Ice Ages, and a long prehistory of the human race, published The Antiquity of Man accepting evolution, the Ice Ages and the long history of man.

The long history of man (or humans as we would now say) was just being uncovered by the pioneers of archaeology.  They labelled it the stone age and began dividing it up.

Figuier did a quick re-write and found another illustrator, Émile Bayard, to draw primitive, stone age (a new term then) humans. “The Art of Making Bread in the Stone Age” appeared in the 1867 French and Catalan editions of The World Before the Deluge. (Interestingly the English translation stuck to the original illustrations).  It also appeared three years later in L’Homme Primitif (Primitive Man).

So this image of stone age bread making is interesting as a very early attempt to show early humans as primitives who had evolved from animals. Clad in skins, herding cattle, goats, and improbably pigs, accompanied by a faithful dog, they are on the first step to becoming civilized.  I see traces here of the old division of human history into savagery (hunting and gathering), pastoralism, farming, and civilization, a division that was canonized in the Scottish Enlightenment.

If so, we’ve got pastoralism and the transition to farming pictured here.

In the early twentieth century, the emphasis in archaeology shifted to farming. The term the Neolithic Revolution was coined in 1923 by the British archaeologist Gordon Childe. When and where did people begin farming became the hot topic.  Why, less so.

But was there some golden moment in the nineteenth century, when the antiquarians and archaeologists realised that the big transition was the transition to grains (which meant pounding and grinding)?  And that agriculture was an afterthought to that?  And that this engraving records that moment.

I’d love to think so.  But I suspect more important was that images of half naked women with swinging breasts kneeling over the grindstone made for much better sales that images of sweaty men bringing in the harvest.

And of course “The Art of Making Bread in the Stone Age” is pretty hopeless as a depiction of bread making.  Although the grindstone with a skin spread underneath it is plausible, flour does not flow off the end in the way shown by the artist.  It gets worse with the dough and the baking.  The figure in the foreground, probably male, pours out dough to make thick pancakes or flatbreads when in fact if the dough could be poured, it would not make piles of flatbreads.  And skewering them on a long stick and waving them over a fire as if making toast would not have cooked them through.  Flatbreads would have been baked directly on the embers, in the ash, or on a bakestone heated in the fire.

So three questions.

1. Is there anything to my speculative history of archaeology? That is, to the idea that early archaeologist realized that understanding how people turned grains into food was absolutely necessary to understanding why they began to farm?

2. Do any of you know where Bayard got the inspiration for this particular image of grinding grain and making bread?

3. And do you have any other early images of grinding you’d like to share?  (I have several that I will talk about later).







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8 thoughts on “The Art of Making Bread in the Stone Age

  1. Tlazolteotl

    Funnily enough the image is very close to the work done still at the present time by the women who grind corn on the metate and make the tortillas right away on the comal heated on the fire.
    After all Aztecs were still living in a stone age, they didn’t know neither the iron nor the wheel.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Well, I suspect this image actually derives from the image in the work on Mexico by the eighteenth-century Jesuit, Clavijero. And yes, the metate did survive a long time in Mexico, which is where I got interested in grinding.

    2. Nick Trachet

      By accident I came across this masterpiece from 1972:
      Don’t know if Bronowski’s theory is still standing?

      I see the origin of baking as part of a sequence: fresh consumption toasting – soaking – boiling (porridge)- baking (drop scones and roti) -fermenting of stale porridge (ale) and finally levened bread.
      So grinding would come in only gradually from from whole grain over breaking to pounding and to grinding and then milling? No?

      1. Rachel Laudan Post author

        Thanks for the link to the Ascent of Man series. I agree it was a really fine series. I’ll have to watch it to remind myself of Bronowski’s theory. By the way, the one on the Industrial Revolution is fantastic too.

        I’m not sure we can decide about the exact sequence. Like you I think that toasting may have been very important. It deals with the hull and gives you an instant product like Mexican pinole or Tibetan tsampa.The problem with boiling is that grains (at least barley and wheat though less so millet, for example) take a long time to soften. Softening them with pot boilers would have been a very laborious task.

        Pounding gives you flattened or broken grains but not flour. These grains cook faster when boiled. They don’t easily hold together to make drop scones or roti in my experience.

        My general view is that there was probably experimentation with toasting, pounding, grinding, sprouting simultaneously. These re not separate paths but overlapping ones.

        But the bottom line is that until you can turn grains into something edible they’re not worth farming. And turning grains into something edible means pounding or grinding. So the processing technology, I think, has to proceed farming.

        1. Nick Trachet

          And if grinding was invented for beans? Beans are a more obvious candidate for impromptu farming. It’s the only thing I (moi, ik, yo) was able to grow succesfully in my garden, so it must be really easy.

          1. Rachel Laudan Post author

            I don’t think in the early stages the seeds of different kinds of herbaceous plants were sharply distinguished. Certainly ancient Chinese and Indian texts seem to run them together. Treated right they all produced lots of interesting products.

            I guess I’m not primarily interested in what led to farming. I think it was a gradual slide into farming, probably along slightly different trajectories in different parts of the world.

            But, yes, beans are easy and fun to grow.


  2. Ken Albala

    I was about to say, get’s it right?? I’ve never seen anyone try to bake bread like that. But now I’m wondering where he could have even gotten the idea that it could be. Maybe I’ll have to try it.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Not a prayer, I think, of toasting dough on a fork. The right is realising that the harvest is just the beginning.

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