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4,000-Year-Old Noodles Found in China

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 12, 2005
 
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 Asian—not Italian—origin 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.

Noodle History

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.

Additional evidence is needed to prove that the noodles found at Lajia are the ancestor of either Asian noodles or Italian pasta. "But in any case, the latter is only documented two millennia later," Lu said.

Gary Crawford, an archaeologist at the University of Toronto at Mississauga in Canada, said finding 4,000-year-old noodles in China is not a surprise.

"It fits with what we've generally known—that noodles have a long and important history in China," he said.

Ingredient Sleuthing

To determine what the noodles were made from, Lu and colleagues compared the shape and patterning of the starch grains and seed husks in the noodle bowl with modern crops.

The team concluded the noodles were made from two kinds of millet—broomcorn millet and foxtail millet. The grain was ground into flour to make dough, which was then likely pulled and stretched into shape.

Foxtail millet alone, the researchers say, lacks the stickiness required to allow the dough to be pulled and stretched into strings.

While archaeological evidence suggests wheat was present in China 4,000 years ago, it was not widely cultivated until the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 to 907), Lu said.

According to Crawford, the fact that the noodles were made of millet is not surprising. His own research at a similarly dated site in northern China shows ample millet and rice but very little wheat.

However, he added, the discovery of well-preserved millet noodles helps explain the lack of grain seeds found at some archaeological sites.

"One suspicion is grain seeds were made into a type of food through boiling and flour production. That would not necessarily leave much in the way of grains to be … recovered," he said. " … and if they were making noodles, that would explain it."

According to Lu, in poor, rural areas of northwestern China, millet is still used to make noodles.

"These modern millet noodles have a harder texture than the wheat noodles, so they are commonly called iron-wire noodles," he said.

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