|16 October 2005
Chinese scientists uncover 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles
Scientists have uncovered the world's oldest known noodles, dating back 4,000 years, at an archaeological site, Lajia, along the upper reaches of the Yellow river in north-west China, possibly ending a long argument over who invented the food. They were preserved in an upturned bowl among the debris of a gigantic earthquake. Until now, the earliest evidence for noodles has been a Chinese written description of noodle preparation dating back 1,900 years.
The Lajia settlement is thought to have been destroyed by earthquake and catastrophic floods. Houyuan Lu and his team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing were excavating this scene of ancient destruction when they came across a well preserved earthenware bowl, embedded upside-down in a layer of clay. In the bowl they were amazed to see the remains of somebody's dinner. "The prehistoric noodles were on top of the sediment cone that once filled the inside of the inverted bowl. Thin, delicate and yellow, they resembled the traditional La-Mian noodle that is made by repeatedly pulling and stretching the dough by hand," said Dr Lu.
An empty space between the sediment and the bottom of the bowl had prevented the 50cm-long, soft yellow strands from being crushed and helped preserve them. When the bowl was lifted the exposure to air quickly oxidised the noodles, turning them to dust, but Dr Lu and his colleagues still managed to analyse the remains.
By analysing phytoliths, the microscopic mineral particles that form within plants, and starch grains from the noodle powder, the scientists managed to narrow down what kind of flour the noodles were made from. Modern noodles tend to be made from wheat flour, but analysis of the ancient noodles revealed they were made from millet, used in making alcoholic drinks.
"Our findings support the belief that early plant domestication and food production relied on millet in the semi-arid Loess plateau region of China," said Dr Lu. This also shows the people in the Lajia region had learned how to make a millet flour dough, that could be stretched into long, thin strands and boiled up.
Sources: BBC News, The Guardian (13 October 2005)
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