When we look back across human history, the invention of so many now-essential items can seem almost accidental. The development of various medicines, for example, has come about through fortune as much as fortitude. For that reason, then, it is not uncommon for key items that we use on a daily basis as a society to be almost luck-based in their invention.
One such product that might meet that kind of description would be yeast. Today, yeast is used in so many industries and is a key part of so many major parts of our day-to-day lives. However, despite being around for millennia, the origins of yeast are not as well-known as some would assume. Yeast has been in use by humans for over 5,000 years and was seen as almost a divine product within the cultures of ancient Egypt.
Indeed, some say that not long after humans were able to use fire for cooking, yeast was formed. How do we know that yeast was used so long ago? It is easy: ancient Egyptian burial tombs, going back to around 3100BC, show the presence of yeast.
When an ancient Egyptian king – only known as Scorpion – died, he was buried in a low tomb that today is known as a mastaba. This was before the era of pyramids, after all. Scorpion was buried with various jars of resinated wine, which also contained a combination of fresh grapes, figs, mint, coriander, and sage. However, another ingredient has been noted to have been found: yeast!
Yeast has been around for thousands of years
What we do not know, though, is who actually invented yeast itself. Yeast, a form of fungi, and has a more unique structure compared to many other forms of fungi. Go back well over 7,000 years and we can find proof that wine was a commonly made product within society; it is also believed that at around about the same time the ability to make bread and even beers was possible, too. Again, this would have been thanks to the discovery of yeast.
We do not know, then, when yeast was first used to actually bake bread. However, most records point to ancient Egyptian times as the era when yeast was most likely first used for the creation of bread. Some believe that it could have been accidental, though; the mixture of flour meal and water could have been left in the sun for longer than intended. This could have seen the yeasts present within the flour could have begun to ferment.
This would have been much easier to eat than the loaves of bread that would have come before, and likely played a huge role in changing the bread culture of the era. Indeed, it is believed that most forms of bread made prior to the discovery of yeast would have been more akin to sourdough bread.
Who invented yeast?
We do not know. This is something that has long been debated, but we can only really find trace ideas of when yeast was even found and used by humans. As it stands, it is highly likely that we will never truly know who was able to invent yeast in the first place. It is, though, almost certain that yeast was found as opposed to intentionally discovered as the process needed to understand yeast would simply not have been something that the average baker would have understood in this era.
Baking itself is a complex and challenging process, and for many people, it can be a hard thing to understand at the best of times. Without a clear understanding of microbiology, then, it is highly likely that the bakers who came across yeast first did so without really meaning to do so.
So, while it is unlikely that we will ever truly know who first invented the idea of yeast, it is very likely that whoever did so was a very lucky person. At the same time, though, the era in which yeast would have been invented was very different from the modern world.
It would have been hard to gain any kind of meaningful celebrity for the discovery, and it would have thus been easier for the idea, as opposed to individual fame, to spread. Over the centuries from discovery to today, though, yeast has found many forms beyond just the baking industry.
While we might never have a clear idea of who invented yeast, it is almost certain that – due to the complex nature of how yeast comes to be – that it was a positive accident.