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Nature/KBK Teo/E Minoux et al

7 of the World’s Oldest Foods Discovered by Archeologists

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Nature/KBK Teo/E Minoux et al

Food rots fast. Therefore it is cause for great history-nerd celebration when archeologists dig up food preserved centuries past its expiration date. Here are seven of the most venerable victuals.  

1. Roman Tomb Wine

Deutscheweine.de

There was a long period in history in which Romans infested the world like fleas. Wealthy, heavily armed, road-building fleas. And when they died, they liked to be buried in style. Because of that, a bottle of their wine has reached our modern world. The wine, found by excavators in Germany, is the oldest known that is still in a liquid state.  It was discovered in one of two sarcophaguses, alongside many other bottles that had long since dried up. This bottle stayed wet because the olive oil used (in place of a cork) to protect the wine from oxidizing did its job really well. And what was the result of 1600 years of aging? The contents are both waxy and silty, and the alcohol content is long gone. Still, the bouquet is quite piquant, obstinate even. Recommended pairing is roasted ox.  

2. Burnt British Bread

BBC

Some say it was a garbage pit, some think it was place of religious offering. Whatever it was originally, by the 21st century it had become a big hole, flooded with water, and it had small pieces of burnt bread and other Neolithic odds and ends floating in it. The bread was the most important discovery. Found in Oxfordshire, England, and estimated to be 5500 years old, the overcooked bread was mistaken for charcoal at first. Then one of the archeologists noticed crushed grains of barley inside of it. If the age is correct, it would have been made by some of the first people to enter Britain from Europe. That crushed barley represents a world-altering revolution, as the newcomers brought with them the fledgling practice of farming, sadly ending the age of throwing pointy sticks at mammoths. 

3. Bone Soup

While excavating to make way for a new airport, Chinese workers struck liquid gold. Well, liquid gold if you happen to be an archeologist. Or really into soup. The soup, sealed so tightly in its bronze cooking pot that it was still in a liquid state, was discovered in a tomb near Xian. It didn’t look too savory, having turned green from 2400 years of bronze oxidation. It also still contained bones, which delighted archeologists, probably because they didn’t actually have to eat it. 

4. Bog Butter

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In Ireland of 3000 years ago, there were limited options for storing your 77 pound barrels of butter. Archeologists are eternally grateful that the inhabitants near a Kildare bog chose to sink theirs into peat, and then forgot about it, because it was still there in 2009. Amazingly, it was intact but for one split, and still full of butter. The butter has lost some of its creamy richness in the interceding millennia, turning to a fatty white wax called adipocere. The National Museum of Ireland conservator Carol Smith says the public will never know how it tastes. "It's a national treasure," she said. "You can't be going hacking bits of it off for your toast!"

5. The Original Noodles 

Nature/KBK Teo/E Minoux et al

 

Everyone says they invented the noodle first. The Chinese, the Italians, the Arabs, they all want credit for that staple of the impoverished college student’s dinner. But thanks to a discovery at the Lajia archeological site on the Yellow River in China, the debate may be over. No other historic noodle has even come close to Lajia’s 4000 year old noodles cache. In the aftermath of an ancient earthquake, the Yellow River flooded, causing disaster to those who lived along it. In his haste to get away, one unfortunate diner left his bowl of millet grass noodles overturned. "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," archeologist Kam-biu Liu said. China for the win! In your face, Ziti!  

6. Beef Jerky

History.Cultural-China.com

Beef jerky travels well, especially if your journey is on to the next world. That is probably why whoever was buried in the 2000 year old tomb found in the village of Wanli, China, packed so much of it. Archeologists took a while to determine that the black and green carbonized mess they found sealed inside a beautiful bronze pot was beef. When they did, that made it the oldest beef ever discovered in China. They could even prove it was actually jerky, as it had not shrunk over the millennia, showing it had already been dried before being placed in the tomb. 

7. Chocolate

Sandy Young/Daily Mail

This 110 year old tin of chocolate does not date from antiquity like the rest of the food on this list, but it still might be the world’s oldest chocolate. There is evidence that chocolate (usually liquid) was made in ancient times, but not much actual chocolate candy has been left uneaten long enough to become antiquated. This little box comes from Scotland, and was made especially to commemorate the coronation day of King Edward VII in 1902. The chocolate passed from the original schoolgirl who abstained from eating it, mother to daughter, until it was donated to the St. Andrews Preservation Trust in 2008.  I call the caramels. You can have the coconut.  

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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