for National Geographic News
A 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles unearthed in China is the earliest example ever found of one of the world's most popular foods, scientists reported today. It also suggests an Asiannot Italianorigin for the staple dish.
The beautifully preserved, long, thin yellow noodles were found inside an overturned sealed bowl at the Lajia archaeological site in northwestern China. The bowl was buried under ten feet (three meters) of sediment. (View a close-up photo >>)
"This is the earliest empirical evidence of noodles ever found," Houyuan Lu of the Institute of Geology and Geophysics at Beijing's Chinese Academy of Sciences said in an e-mail interview.
Lu and colleagues report the find tomorrow in the science journal Nature.
The scientists determined the noodles were made from two kinds of millet, a grain indigenous to China and widely cultivated there 7,000 years ago. Modern North American and European noodles are usually made with wheat.
Archaeochemist Patrick McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia said that if the date for the noodles is correct, the find is "quite amazing."
Even today, he said, deft skills are required to make long, thin noodles like those found at Lajia.
"This shows a fairly high level of food processing and culinary sophistication," he said.
Noodles have been a staple food in many parts of the world for at least 2,000 years, though whether the modern version of the stringy pasta was first invented by the Chinese, Italians, or Arabs is debatable.
Prior to the discovery of noodles at the Lajia archaeological site, the earliest record of noodles appears in a book written during China's East Han Dynasty sometime between A.D. 25 and 220, Lu said.
Other theories suggest noodles were first made in the Middle East and introduced to Italy by the Arabs. Italians are widely credited for popularizing the food in Europe and spreading it around the world.
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