The noodle had disintegrated.
That much I'd heard by the time we met on a Beijing street corner that was coincidentally occupied by a hand-pulled noodle shop. I proposed that we talk about the noodle in question over noodles, my mouth watering at the thought of strands stretched magically thin by hand and bathed in a spicy beef broth. My companion declined, saying he'd already eaten. "But next time, I'll treat you to a bowl!" he said, expressing courtesy typical of Chinese.
In his tinted eyeglasses, worn sweater, and slacks, geologist Lu Houyan was an ordinary-looking man. The Chinese Academy of Sciences campus where he led me was equally characterless. But he was the guardian of something intriguing: a four-thousand-year-old noodle, proof that China was the rightful inventor of the widespread staple. As soon as we settled into his third-floor office, he went straight to his computer and booted up a PowerPoint presentation.
"The noodle is real," he said, clicking open a photograph of a tangled yellow mass embedded in dirt. He traced the loops and curlicues with his finger. "Isn't it beautiful? See? It's one piece — you can see the head and the tail."
The site where the noodle was discovered, called Lajia, had been home to an ethnic minority community that had thrived near the Yellow River four thousand years before, until a catastrophic earthquake and flood. As at Pompeii, the tragedy decimated the population but preserved some artifacts, including a number of eating vessels. During excavation, the archaeology team came across an inverted clay bowl and, uncupping it, discovered the single long yellow strand. The noodle had survived because of a vacuum between the sediment cone and the bowl's bottom, Lu explained.
The discovery garnered the attention of Nature magazine and major newspapers. Lu seemed tickled by all the interview requests he'd received from foreign journalists, who'd come from as far as America to speak with him. But one troubling detail hadn't made it into any of the publications. I'd learned of it when I first checked the Wikipedia entry for noodles:
In 2005, Chinese archaeologists claimed to have found the oldest noodles yet discovered [sic] in Qinghai. This find, however, is disputed by many experts who suspect its authenticity. Chinese archaeologists claim the evidence disintegrated shortly after discovery, making the claim unverifiable.
Sometime after I first checked Wikipedia and before meeting Lu, someone changed the entry, deleting the entire paragraph and replacing it with the following:
In 2002, archaeologists found an earthenware bowl containing the world's oldest known noodles, measured to roughly 4000 years BP through radiocarbon dating, at the Lajia archaeological site along the Yellow River in China. The noodles were found well-preserved.
I was curious to find out what had really happened. Had the noodle dissolved? I asked Lu.
"Yes, that's right. Zao jiu meiyou le! Early on, the noodle was no more!" he admitted, in a tone no less jovial than the one he'd used to describe the noodle's beauty.
Lu hadn't been at the archaeological site, nor had he seen the noodle intact, he admitted. And he didn't know anything about the altered entry. "That's very strange. I don't know what happened," he said earnestly. I presumed his innocence, given how readily he'd owned up to the noodle's demise, but the additional details he provided only made the noodle more suspect: the excavation team consisted only of a graduate student and a farmer. After discovering the noodle, they placed the bowl back over it and shipped it to Beijing by train. Upon the noodle's arrival at the university, the staff arranged a meeting with one of the academy's leaders and — with great fanfare — lifted the bowl to reveal its contents: tiny yellow shards embedded in dirt.
Lu said the weight of the bowl had crushed the noodle. "This often happens with food we find at archaeological sites. Sometimes we find a bottle of wine and uncork it and the vapors disappear, the liquid dries up," he said.
The professor was part of the forensics team that had studied the noodle's crumbled remains. He tested the noodle dust and established it was made of millet, a substance more brittle than wheat. He spent months trying to plausibly justify how the noodle was made and how it had held up for thousands of years. (That accounted for the discrepancy in the date of discovery in the Wikipedia entry — though the noodle had been found in 2002, it took until 2005, after testing, theorizing, and publicizing the results, before the news reached the pages of Nature.)
The region where the noodle was found was famous for hand-pulled noodles, like the ones advertised at the corner shop. But that variety — long, thin, and chewy (again, my mouth watered at the thought of those strands) — required a gluten-based substance like wheat, which did not undergo mass cultivation until later in China's history. Lu's best guess was that this noodle had been pushed through a press. Yet there was no evidence of a press, and I still remained doubtful that any noodle — made of millet, wheat, or anything else — could survive for so long.
Lu agreed to show me what was left. We took an elevator to another floor and entered a small laboratory that held a safe. The safe contained a plastic bag. The bag contained a test tube. The tube contained a fleck of yellow.
"You see, this is all we have," he said regretfully. "It's a very tiny thing. I can't say for sure that the Chinese were responsible for bringing noodles to the West, but I can be very sure that no one will find a noodle that is older than this."
From On The Noodle Road by Jen Lin-Liu. Copyright 2013 by Jen Lin-Liu. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books.