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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 October 2005, 17:29 GMT 18:29 UK
Oldest noodles unearthed in China
Late Neolithic noodles: They may settle the origin debate

The remains of the world's oldest noodles have been unearthed in China.

The 50cm-long, yellow strands were found in a pot that had probably been buried during a catastrophic flood.

Radiocarbon dating of the material taken from the Lajia archaeological site on the Yellow River indicates the food was about 4,000 years old.

Scientists tell the journal Nature that the noodles were made using grains from millet grass - unlike modern noodles, which are made with wheat flour.

The discovery goes a long way to settling the old argument over who first created the string-like food.

Professor Houyuan Lu said: "Prior to the discovery of noodles at Lajia, the earliest written record of noodles is traced to a book written during the East Han Dynasty sometime between AD 25 and 220, although it remained a subject of debate whether the Chinese, the Italians, or the Arabs invented it first.

Lajia is a very interesting site; in a way, it is the Pompeii of China
Prof Kam-biu Liu
"Our discovery indicates that noodles were first produced in China," the researcher from the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, explained to BBC News.

The professor's team tells Nature that the ancient settlement at Lajia was hit by a sudden catastrophe.

Among the remains are skeletons thrown into various abnormal postures, suggesting the inhabitants may have been trying to flee the disaster that was enveloping them.

"Based on the geological and archaeological evidence, there was a catastrophic earthquake and immediately following the quake, the site was subject to flooding by the river," explained co-author Professor Kam-biu Liu, from Louisiana State University, US.

Map of Lajia (BBC)
"Lajia is a very interesting site; in a way, it is the Pompeii of China."

It was in amongst the human wreckage that scientists found an upturned earthenware bowl filled with brownish-yellow, fine clay.

When they lifted the inverted container, the noodles were found sitting proud on the cone of sediment left behind.

"It was this unique combination of factors that created a vacuum or empty space between the top of the sediment cone and the bottom of this bowl that allowed the noodles to be preserved," Professor Kam-biu Liu said.

The noodles resemble the La-Mian noodle, the team says; a traditional Chinese noodle that is made by repeatedly pulling and stretching the dough by hand.

There is evidence that a sudden calamity overtook the Lajia site

To identify the plants from which the noodles were made, the team looked at the shape and patterning of starch grains and so-called seed-husk phytoliths in the bowl.

These were compared with modern crops. The analysis pointed to the use of foxtail millet (Setaria italica) and broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum)

"Our data demonstrate that noodles were probably initially made from species of domesticated grasses native to China. This is in sharp contrast to modern Chinese noodles or Italian pasta which are mostly made of wheat today," Professor Houyuan Lu said.

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