Neolithic Noodles Unearthed in China

The 4,000-year-old noodles are so well-preserved, they almost look edible. i i

The 4,000-year-old noodles are so well-preserved, they almost look edible. K.B.K. Teo, E. Minoux et al. hide caption

itoggle caption K.B.K. Teo, E. Minoux et al.
The 4,000-year-old noodles are so well-preserved, they almost look edible.

The 4,000-year-old noodles are so well-preserved, they almost look edible.

K.B.K. Teo, E. Minoux et al.

Archeologists in northwest China have found the remains of a bowl of millet noodles prepared about 4,000 years ago. The find bolsters the theory that millet was one of the first domesticated plants.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Italians like to think they made the first noodles, but the Chinese maintain they invented the dish about 2,000 years ago, and Arab cooks argue that the honor belongs to them. Well, now scientists have weighed in. A team of archaeologists at a site in northwest China turned up a bowl of noodles that was prepared in the Stone Age. NPR's Jon Hamilton has details.

JON HAMILTON reporting:

About 4,000 years ago, someone in the village of Lajia, along the Yellow River, was apparently getting ready to eat a bowl of noodles. Then a massive earthquake hit. Kam-biu Liu of Louisiana State University explains what happened next.

Mr. KAM-BIU LIU (Louisiana State University): The bowl of noodles was dropped and overturned with the noodles inside. And then the bottom of the overturned bowl was then sealed by the layer of flood sediment.

HAMILTON: Liu says that's because the massive earthquake triggered an equally massive flood. The village of Lajia was entombed in silt and debris.

OK, skip forward a few thousand years. Archaeologists have discovered the ancient buried village of Lajia and are sifting through the ruins. Liu says that after digging down through about 10 feet of silt and clay, they uncover something that looks like an overturned bowl.

Mr. LIU: They turn it over, you know, expecting that there is anything inside, but then after they open or remove this overturned bowl, they found the noodles. What is amazing about it is that it almost looked as if, you know, this is a fresh bowl of noodles, almost looked like, you know, it is edible.

HAMILTON: The clay had created an airtight seal that preserved the neolithic noodles for 4,000 years. The noodles turned to powder soon after being uncovered, but not before archaeologists took a picture. Gary Crawford is an anthropologist at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. He says this discovery defied all odds.

Mr. GARY CRAWFORD (University of Toronto at Mississauga): It's exciting because noodles just shouldn't be preserved at archaeological sites. They're really quite delicate.

HAMILTON: Crawford says the find, reported in this week's issue of the journal Nature, also confirms that ancient cultures were quite sophisticated when it came to processing foods.

Mr. CRAWFORD: We know that they've been steaming food for a long time because we find ceramic steamers at sites this old and even older. And so we just assumed they were maybe boiling grains, making porridges or something. But now this adds another dimension to what they were cooking.

HAMILTON: It required a technique that's still used by Chinese cooks today.

(Soundbite of kitchen activity)

HAMILTON: At the Chinatown Express restaurant in Washington, DC, a chef works behind a window facing the sidewalk. He kneads and twists a slab of dough, stretches it into a thick rope about four feet long and folds the rope in half so as to make two thinner strands. Then he stretches them. Soon there are dozens of strands thin enough to send to the kitchen on a plastic tray.

(Soundbite of ambient noise in restaurant)

HAMILTON: These neo-noodles are made from wheat. Laboratory tests showed that the paleo-noodles found in China were made from millet. But they're still noodles, and Gary Crawford says the discovery may help settle the debate about who invented this culinary classic.

Mr. CRAWFORD: Well, I've always been on the side of China being the originator of noodles, so this sure lends support to that argument.

HAMILTON: The woman behind the counter at Chinatown Express is pretty underwhelmed, though. She says she's always assumed that Chinese noodles hadn't changed much since the Stone Age.

Unidentified Woman: Unless they're fried, it's same thing, same thing that I make here. It's just in the style, only different in style. Maybe someone do them fat, more skinny, you know.

HAMILTON: She's more impressed that the prehistoric noodles survived so long. Here, handmade noodles rarely last more than a few minutes. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

(Soundbite of ambient noise in restaurant)

NORRIS: To see a picture of the ancient noodles, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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