Thursday, October 13, 2005

Just Noodling Around

Archaeologists noodling around among the remains of a 4,000 year-old city near the Yellow River in China found an upside down bowl. Imagine their surprise when they lifted up the bowl to discover a little pile of 4,000 year-old noodles. It pushes our noodle awareness back about 2,000 years.

Then some other scientists got to work and analyzed the noodles and discovered something even more interesting: The noodles were made from millet, not wheat.

How, you may ask, could they tell it was millet, not wheat? Grasses, including the cereal grains produce tiny silica inclusions in their tissues called phytoliths. Phytoliths come in a variety of shapes distinct enough from one another that they may be used to differentiate major taxonomic groups. The scientists were able to conclusively determine that the phytoliths in the noodles were those produced by millet, not wheat.

It doesn’t stop there. Because phytoliths are silica (like pure sand or glass), they persist and can even be collected from soil samples where no or limited fossil plant macro-remains have survived. A specialist can analyze a pinch of dirt and say things like “there was millet here”. Here is a sample article on phytolith research from the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Noodles were not among the favorite space foods mentioned by two Chinese astronauts, one of whom celebrated his 41st birthday in orbit.

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