A scientific controversy in China over the origins of noodles

When, in 2005, Nature magazine published1 “ a brief announcement about the discovery of noodle-like remains at a late Neolithic archeological site in China ”, the news, which was circulated by every press agency, immediately went round the world. The authors claimed that, at last, the question of whether the Italians, Arabs or Chinese were responsible for this marvelous invention called “ noodles ” had been clarified.  The burning question of their origin had finally been answered: the Chinese could prove their anteriority in the matter.

These remains were discovered in Lajia, a site that some describe as a “ Chinese Pompeii ”, after the famous ancient city.  Amongst the objects found at the dig are several skeletons frozen in positions that would suggest the need for protection from imminent danger.  Indeed, it is believed that the place was abandoned after a terrible earthquake, followed by a flood so sudden and violent that it left the inhabitants with no chance of survival. Lajia is located in Qinghai, on the high plateau of the upper Yellow River.  The vestiges that have been uncovered there date from 2000 B.C. and are related to the  Qijia culture2.

The announcement published in Nature magazine and signed by nine Chinese scientists, includes several illustrations3.

One photograph, in particular, depicts a bundle of filaments which, for the authors, are strands of spaghetti-like noodles.  According to the Chinese archeologists who wrote the article, these noodles were actually made using the traditional technique of lamian, « noodles that have been pulled and stretched by hand »,  which is still used in China today. Physical and chemical analyses of the samples of phytoliths and starches taken from the bundle and from the surrounding area, also document the discovery.  The results reveal the presence on the site of two types of millet, Setaria italica  (foxtail millet) and Panicum miliaceum (broomcom millet), the two ancient cereals of northern China – Setaria being native to this geographical area and Panicum very probably a native as well.  The authors conclude that, unlike Italian pasta and Asian wheat-flour noodles, the noodles from the Lajia site were made with millet.  They add that it was probably cooked in a meat broth, since animal remains were found near the bundle of filaments.

I was astounded by this news, as it turned all the knowledge we have on this question on its head, and, above all, it pulverized the results of the research I had carried out over many long years on the origins of noodle artifacts4.

  • The first surprise was that the millet found on this site may have been used in an unusual form, requiring its transformation into flour. Yet, from the very beginning of the Neolithic period, millet, after being hulled with a mortar, and without any further processing, was eaten and appreciated by the peoples who grew it, as a whole grain.  In ancient China, this was also how it was consumed in everyday life, but it is very likely that at the Court, as the  Record of Rites and other texts of 4th and 3rd century B.C. suggest, these cereals could have been prepared in different ways, most likely as pancakes, which would require grinding the grain.  So it would seem that the inhabitants of Lajia, 2000 years before Christ, ground their subsistence cereals into flour in order to make noodles.
  • This surprising claim raises several questions.  The first concerns tools.  Processing grain to make flour requires specific tools; for example, saddle querns with rubbers, instruments commonly found at Neolithic archeological sites and which were used to crush all kinds of grain or even to grind pigments.  Were such tools found at Lajia?
  • Another question immediately springs to mind.  Millet, as well as rice, is a cereal that, unlike wheat, rye or barley, does not contain gluten, and for this very reason is recommended for people who have an intolerance for this complex mixture of proteins.  But it is this elastic substance which provides the rheological qualities of dough made with wheat flour and water – which, in other words, makes it suitable for bread making, and most important, for molding into different shapes.  The dough one obtains by mixing millet or rice flour with a liquid, on the other hand, is barely malleable, and has no elasticity.  It is therefore impossible to make “hand-pulled pasta”, as the authors of the article claim, unless a large dose of wheat flour is added to the mixture to compensate for the absence of gluten.  Does the Lajia site show signs of the presence of wheat crops?

I used these objective facts about the biochemistry of cereals and their different uses as my starting point, I examined the work of researchers who had preceded me, especially the Japanese, and after having analysed the early Chinese lexicographical sources from an anthropological perspective, I believed I had demonstrated the essential role of wheat in the production of the first flour based artefacts related to bread and noodles.

Wheat, which took some time to become acclimatised to the central basin of the Yellow River after its migration over thousands of years from the Middle East, was firmly established there only around the 5th to 3rd centuries B.C., as was the case, for that matter, of the instrument that enabled its grain to be processed into fine flour, that is to say, the rotary mill.

My conclusion was that the first noodles could not have seen the light of day before the large-scale distribution of wheat crops, i.e. only a few centuries before Christ.  The new chronology suggested by the authors of the announcement published in Nature magazine changed everything.

  • The other essential element of my argument was based on the presence of gluten in wheat grain, and, conversely, on its absence in millet. I had even imagined that the ancient Chinese had been seduced by the plasticity of the new substance – dough made with wheat flour and water – which they could play with like clay, another substance upon which they exercised their imagination and their talent with great virtuosity throughout the course of history.

However, the article in Nature magazine makes no mention whatsoever of the presence of wheat on the Lajia site, nor does it mention the presence of suitable tools for grinding grain to make fine flour.

I therefore had very serious doubts about the validity of this discovery and so I consulted Sakamoto Sadao. This emeritus professor from the Germ-plant Institute at the University of Kyoto, a botanist and renowned specialist of the history of cereals in Eurasia – especially millet, the subject of several of his studies – confirmed my doubts.  In his opinion, the report in Nature makes no sense.

It should also be pointed out that the news was broadcast in a very strange way, to say the least, as it had its source not in China, but only in the British magazine.  All the articles announcing the discovery and published at that moment in Chinese reviews or on various Chinese language internet sites, invariably referred to Nature magazine as the first and only source of the announcement.  This only reinforced my suspicions.  How was it possible to believe that serious Chinese archeologists could let a “ foreign ” publication grab a scoop on such an important discovery?

Several times I thought about revealing my suspicions or at least expressing my doubts about the claims published in Nature magazine, especially after my meeting in the autumn of 2010 with Wang Renxiang, a member of the Centre for Archeology at the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing and one of the team in charge of the dig at Lajia, as well as a respected specialist on questions concerning food, whose texts are generally interesting and well-documented.  In his most recent work, Wang has supported the hypothesis of the invention of millet-flour noodles in Qinghai during the late Neolithic period5.  In the course of my very brief interview with him, I was not able to convince him of my point of view, but I had the feeling, nevertheless, that he was not naive and that he knew perfectly well that the scientific validity of this discovery was questionable.  Indeed, it seems that the “ discovery ” has sparked off a debate within the circle of the archeological community in China, as we shall see.

For example, Ye Maolin, the only archeologist to sign the article in Nature6 has refined and qualified his arguments in a new article about the Lajia dig published in 20087.

Nevertheless, he is on the same side as Wang Renxiang, whom he quotes in support of his thesis, but he no longer claims that the millet-flour noodles could have been « hand pulled » in the same manner as today’s hugely popular lamian. This time he proposes a hypothesis according to which the noodles could have been made by extrusion, using a hand-made wooden press, similar to the process used today in some rural areas of northern China for the  hele, noodles made from  buckwheat, a member of the polygonaceae family whose grains do not contain gluten. However, Ye Maolin is honest enough to admit that, for the time being, no trace of a press, a saddle quern or even a sieve has been found at the Lajia dig, even though these are all objects that are usually used for grinding grain to make flour.  There is no real evidence, either, of any wheat crops.  However, Ye Maolin hastens to add that it is not because nothing has been found for the moment that we can be certain there were never any of these things on the site.

The truth is that Ye Maolin and Wang Renxiang have other preoccupations than the history of food in China, even if Wang is one of the top specialists on the subject. What really interests them is the origin and development of Chinese civilisation, as has been the case for many of their fellow archeologists over the last 50 years8, for they are persuaded that « progress » in techniques for food processing within a society is a strong indicator for evaluating its development.  And even though it seems difficult to speak of China as a composed entity at this stage, they still refer to « our 4000 year old ancestors ». For Wang, for example, the discovery at Lajia clearly indicates that the Chinese did not have to wait for the diffusion of wheat crops (a foreign grain that came from the West) and the arrival of the rotative mill (which came from we know not where, but most probably from the West as well) in order to enjoy refined food, prepared from flours milled from grain, such as noodles.

In his eyes, the production of flour indicates, without a doubt, a higher degree of refinement in the techniques of food preparation. His arguments about the Lajia noodles have evolved over the years, for that matter.  In one of his more recent texts, dated 2010, he seems to agree with his colleague Ye Maolin, who suggests that a press might have been used to make noodles by extrusion.  But above all, his purpose is to make it known that, from prehistoric times, the Chinese (or rather, their ancestors) also made « pancakes » from millet flour, which they cooked on a sort of thick terra cotta griddle, examples of which have been found dating from more than 5000 years ago… and therefore, why not noodles ?

In fact, Ye Maolin, and especially Wang Renxiang, are rather dishonest when they target « the researchers who see the Chinese as a people who ate grains whole ».   They are fighting windmills, for the discourse of the specialists in question, as was mine in my studies, was to focus on the foundations of the different agricultural and subsistence systems in ancient rural societies.  Indeed, no one can argue that the groups of people living in the eastern-most areas of continental Eurasia (the present-day territory of China) were essentially consumers of cereals (millet and rice), normally eaten as whole grains. This does not exclude the possibility that, for particular and specific purposes, they ground small quantities of grain to make pancakes.  As far as Ancient China is concerned, the texts confirm this.  On the other hand, in the western part of Eurasia, in Europe for example, cereals suitable for bread making, mainly wheat and rye, were transformed into flour in order to make bread from Neolithic times. This does not change the fact that in some areas where so-called “ minor ” cereals were grown, people ate boiled grain that was either whole or roughly crushed.  Here, there is an interesting contrast between different techniques, but without any indication that one system is superior to the other.  One does not succeed the other in a march of progress that defines “ civilisation ” in one case and “ backwardness ” in the other.

Ye’s and Wang’s reasoning is based on an implicit comparison between « advanced » societies and « primitive » societies,  and for them the evolution and progress of a society can only be envisaged by using, as a benchmark, a scale extending from the simple to the complex and from the primitive to the civilised, in short, from grain to flour9. It is as if China needed to be defended against suspicions of inferiority that might be attached to the development of its civilisation. There is no need to point out that this evolutionist model is no longer topical, if indeed it ever was.

This whole affair has had a happy ending with the publication of an article on the Lajia discovery in the very serious Oxford University review, Archeometry.  It is signed by another group of Chinese archeologists10 who base their demonstration on an experiment in producing noodles from millet flour, along with a physical and chemical study of the starches thus produced and their transformation during the cooking process.  They demonstrate that it is totally impossible to make noodles using only millet flour.  Not only do they demolish the arguments set forth by the authors of the announcement in Nature magazine, but they also query the validity of their analyses of the phytoliths.  Finally, they call for a re-examination of the remains found at Lajia.

I had two contradictory feelings about this affair:

  • The first was one of joy, for I was inclined to feel that the state of archeological research in China today has improved considerably.  Seven years after the publication of an article that was questionable, to say the least, serious researchers have refused to join  a stupid chauvinist game that attempts to gratify their country with a « discovery » that would force the world to look on with admiration, to the detriment of scientific truth, and even plain evidence.
  • The second was sadness over the lack of seriousness on the part of the famous magazine, Nature.  Why was the content of this so-called discovery not checked? The authors of the article are by no means food historians, and only one, it seems, is an archeologist.  They are blatantly ignorant of the already rich bibliography that exists on the matter, both in the realm of history and of botany.  Does this venerable review need to build up its readership with this so-called news, announced amidst much  publicity?

To quote this post

  • Françoise Sabban, “ A scientific controversy in China over the origins of noodles ”  Carnets du Centre Chine. Date posted: October, 15,  2012 URL : http://cecmc.hypotheses.org/?p=7663 translated from « Une controverse scientifique en Chine sur l’origine des pâtes alimentaires », Carnets du Centre Chine. Date posted:  July, 27,  2012. URL : http://cecmc.hypotheses.org/7469

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Citer ce billet
Françoise Sabban (2012, 17 octobre). A scientific controversy in China over the origins of noodles. Carnets du Centre Chine (CNRS/EHESS). Consulté le 24 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/me9k

  1. Lu Houyuan et al.,“ Millet Noodles in Late Neolithic China”, Nature, 437, 2005, p. 967-968. []
  2. For a brief presentation of the site, see the page devoted to it on the site for the Centre of Archeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences : http://www.kaogu.net.cn/en/detail.asp?ProductID=807 []
  3. They are attached respectively to the Institute of  Geology and Geophysics and the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences of Beijing ;  the Institute of Archeology  at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences of Beijing ; to the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge ; to the College of Environmental Sciences at the University of Beijing ; to the Qinghai Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology at Sining []
  4. Cf. “ China: Pasta’s Other Homeland ” and the  bibliography, in Silvano Serventi,  Françoise Sabban, Pasta : the Story of a Universal Food,  New York, Columbia University Press,  2002. pp. 271-344 []
  5. “ Miantiao de nianling – jian shuo Zhongguo shiqian shidai de mianshi ”, Zhonghua wenhua huabao, 2010, 2, pp. 124-128. []
  6. The others are geophysicists, geologists and geographers. []
  7. “ Lajia yinshi yizhi yu yinshi wenming – Qinghai Lajia yizhi shiqian yinshi wenhua de kaogu faxian [The Lajia Site and Food Culture : Archeological Discoveries Relating to Prehistoric Food Culture at the Lajia Site in Qinghai ] ”, Zhongguo yinshi wenhua [Journal of Chinese Dietary Culture], Foundation of Chinese Dietary Culture, Taiwan, 2008, Vol. 4, N°2, pp. 45-76 []
  8. Debaine-Francfort, Corinne, “ Compte rendu ” du livre édité par Chang Kwang-chih & al.The Formation of Chinese Civilisation : An Archeological Perspective, ( New Haven, London, Yale University Press, Beijing, New World Press, 2005), Études chinoises, Vol. XXV (2006), p. 199-204. []
  9. op. cit. idem p. 203. []
  10. Wei Ge and al., ” Can Noodles Be Made From Millet ? An Experimental Investigation of Noodle Manufacture Together With Starch Grain Analyses “, Archeometry, 53, 1 (2011), p. 194-204. Thanks to Tom Verde for having pointed out this article and having sent it to me. []

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