11 of the Oldest Foods and Drinks Ever Discovered

Antarctic Heritage Trust
Antarctic Heritage Trust

In this day and age, the diverse array of products on supermarket shelves is often taken for granted. The Founding Fathers never got to enjoy sliced bread (introduced in 1928), nor peanut butter (invented in its modern form in the late 19th century). Eel pie and roast beaver tail, on the other hand, were often consumed by early American colonists.

Travel back even further in time and it becomes difficult to imagine what the ancient Romans and Egyptians may have eaten. But archaeological findings have given us some idea of what was served for dinner hundreds and even thousands of years ago—and perhaps surprisingly, some of the foods aren't all that different from what we eat today. Here are a few of the oldest once-edible items ever discovered.

1. ANTARCTIC FRUITCAKE

Fruitcake may be a holiday staple, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who actually enjoys eating this nutty, fruity confection. British explorer Robert Falcon Scott was apparently an exception. An almost-edible fruitcake, believed to have been abandoned by Scott during the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910 to 1913, was rediscovered on the frigid continent over 100 years later. Back then, fruitcake was a popular food in England, and the cold climes may have led to an extra appreciation for its high fat and sugar content. Sadly, Scott never got the chance to savor the sweet treat. He died of starvation and exposure while attempting to become the first person to reach the South Pole in 1912. As for the century-old cake, it was in “excellent condition” inside a corroded tin when it was found by the Antarctic Heritage Trust in 2017 during an excavation of the historic Cape Adare hut that Scott once used for shelter.

2. EGYPTIAN TOMB CHEESE

The pharaohs may not curse you for consuming ancient cheese found in the tomb of Ptahmes during a 2013-14 excavation, but you’d probably wind up with a nasty case of brucellosis—an infectious disease caused by eating unpasteurized dairy products. Strains of the bacteria were found on the cheese residue, which dates back some 3200 years and is the first known example of cheese in ancient Egypt. It’s thought to contain sheep and goat milk, but the taste would likely leave a lot to be desired. Professor Paul Kindstedt, who is something of an expert on the history of cheese, told The New York Times that this particular product would probably taste “really, really acidy.”

3. WORLD'S OLDEST WINE

An ancient wine cup
A Georgian wine cup dating back to 600-700 BCE.
Georges Gobet, AFP/Getty Images

Roughly 6000 years before Jesus was said to have turned water into wine, people in the present-day nation of Georgia were concocting their own fermented grape juice. The art of winemaking was previously thought to have been invented in what is now Iran around 5000 BCE, but prehistoric pottery shards found near the Georgian capital of Tbilisi last year debunked that theory. A chemical analysis revealed that the clay pieces contained traces of citric acid, grape pollen, and even signs of prehistoric fruit flies, leading researchers to theorize that the clay pieces once formed decorative vats used to hold vast quantities of vino (about 400 bottles worth).

4. BOG BUTTER

In 2009, peat workers in Ireland recovered 77 pounds of butter from an oak barrel that had been dumped in a bog and forgotten for 3000 years. Considering that it was such a big batch of butter, historians believe it was made by the community and then submerged in water to preserve it or hide it from thieves. The butter turned a whitish color over the course of three millennia, but otherwise remained remarkably intact. This delicacy isn’t available for sampling at your local supermarket, though. "It's a national treasure," National Museum of Ireland conservator Carol Smith told reporters. "You can't be going hacking bits of it off for your toast!" Shortly after its discovery, it was brought to the National Museum for safekeeping, presumably out of reach of any would-be butter bandits.

5. FLOOD NOODLES

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of noodle varieties in China alone. But before the advent of wheat or rice noodles, one of the first kinds ever documented in the country—and the world—was a bowl of 4000-year-old millet noodles discovered at the Lajia archaeological site along the Yellow River. It’s believed that an earthquake and subsequent flood caused a hapless diner to abandon his meal, leaving the bowl overturned on the ground for millennia. The helping of thin, long noodles had been sealed off, and was found beneath 10 feet of sediment. This finding also suggests that noodles originated in Asia rather than Europe. "Our data demonstrate that noodles were probably initially made from species of domesticated grasses native to China," Professor Houyuan Lu told BBC News. "This is in sharp contrast to modern Chinese noodles or Italian pasta which are mostly made of wheat today."

6. PROTO-PITA

A fire pit in the desert
The stone fireplace where the bread was found
Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen

In July 2018, in a stone fireplace in Jordan's Black Desert, archaeologists unearthed the oldest piece of bread ever discovered. The 14,400-year-old flatbread looked a little like a pita, except it was made from wild cereals similar to barley, einkorn, and oats. Tubers from an aquatic plant were another key ingredient, reportedly lending the bread a gritty texture and salty taste—so you probably wouldn’t want to pair it with hummus and bring it to your next potluck party.

7. SHIPWRECKED SALAD DRESSING

The contents of a jar recovered from an ancient shipwreck in the Aegean Sea wouldn’t seem out of place in a modern Mediterranean recipe. Discovered in 2004 off the coast of the Greek island Chios, the sunken ship dates back to 350 BCE—a time when the Roman Republic and Athenian Empire ruled the region. The contents of the ship were recovered in 2006 and analyzed the following year, at which time archaeologists learned that one of the amphoras (a type of jar used by ancient Greeks and Romans) contained olive oil mixed with oregano. Indeed, it’s a recipe designed to stand the test of time. “If you go up into the hills of Greece today, the older generation of women know that adding oregano, thyme, or sage not just flavors the oil, but helps preserve it longer," maritime archaeologist Brendan Foley told LiveScience.

8. EVIDENCE OF PRIMITIVE POPCORN

Who doesn’t love popcorn and a movie? Thanks to the discovery of corn microfossils and an analysis of ancient corn cobs, husks, tassels, and stalks found in present-day Peru, we now know that this snack has been a favorite indulgence for thousands of years, long before the movie industry capitalized on its salty, buttery goodness. People in what is now Peru were eating popcorn and other corn-based foods up to 6700 years ago, and archaeologists believe it may have been considered a delicacy in their culture.

9. CENTURY-OLD CHOCOLATE

A 116-year-old tin of chocolate from Scotland just might be the world’s oldest chocolate still in existence. The collectible was specially created to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII on June 26, 1902, and in a remarkable show of willpower, the young girl who received these chocolates did not eat a single piece. Instead, she kept them until she was an adult and handed the chocolates down to her daughter, who continued the tradition by passing them on to her daughter. Now, it's probably a little too late to enjoy them—the confections are somewhat shriveled and discolored. They were ultimately handed over to the St. Andrews Preservation Trust in 2008 for conservation.

10. CHINESE BONE SOUP

An archaeologist holds a bronze vessel where soup was found inside
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Venture just beyond the ancient Chinese city of Xian—home to the Terracotta Warriors—and you’ll arrive at another sacred destination (for foodies, at least). A bronze cooking vessel containing a once-steaming helping of bone broth was found in a tomb near the former Chinese capital of Xian in 2010. Construction workers had been excavating the site as part of a local airport’s expansion project, and naturally, they were surprised when they found 2400-year-old soup underground. The vessel still contained bones, and the finding was lauded by researchers as “the first discovery of bone soup in Chinese archaeological history.” The tomb likely belonged to a low-ranking military officer or member of China’s land-owning class, according to archaeologists.

11. BURIED BEEF JERKY

We may think of beef jerky as a modern snack that’s best enjoyed on road trips or camping excursions, but different varieties of dried and preserved meat have been enjoyed around the world throughout history, from ancient Egypt to Rome to the Incan empire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, early Chinese civilizations had their own version of the snack, too. Much like the bone soup discovery, 2000-year-old beef jerky was unearthed from a tomb in the village of Wanli during an excavation project that started in 2009. Over the millennia, it turned a less-than-appetizing shade of dark green due to the carbonization—but it hadn’t shrunk one bit, proving that it had been dried prior to being placed in the tomb.

Dozens of Cat Mummies, Plus 100 Cat Statues, Discovered in 4500-Year-Old Egyptian Tomb

iStock.com/Murat İnan
iStock.com/Murat İnan

The mummification of cats was a common practice in ancient Egypt, but it’s always a pleasant surprise when the felines are found thousands of years later. As NPR reports, dozens of mummified cats and 100 wooden cat statues were recently discovered in a 4500-year-old tomb near Cairo.

These items were uncovered by Egyptian archaeologists while excavating a newly discovered tomb in Saqqara, whose necropolis served the ancient city of Memphis. Another nearby tomb remains sealed, and it’s possible that it may have evaded looters and remained untouched for millennia.

In addition to the wooden statues, one bronze cat statue was found. It was dedicated to Bastet, goddess of cats, who was said to be the daughter of Re, god of the Sun. While cats were revered by ancient Egyptians, they weren’t directly worshipped. Rather, gods like Bastet were often depicted with the physical characteristics of an animal that was considered divine.

Even rarer than the mummified cats were a couple collections of mummified scarab beetles that were found in the tomb—the first of their kind to be unearthed in this particular necropolis, Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities announced in a Facebook post. The scarabs were still in “very good condition” because they had been wrapped in linen and placed inside two limestone sarcophagi, whose lids had black scarabs painted on top.

"The (mummified) scarab is something really unique. It is something really a bit rare," Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, told Reuters and other media. "A couple of days ago, when we discovered those coffins, they were sealed coffins with drawings of scarabs. I never heard about them before."

The beetles were an important religious symbol in ancient Egypt, representing renewal and rebirth. The Ministry of Antiquities said archaeologists also found wooden statues of a lion, a cow, and a falcon, as well as painted wooden sarcophagi of cobras (with mummies inside) and wooden sarcophagi of crocodiles.

[h/t NPR]

12 Doomed Facts About the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
When the wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
'Twas the witch of November come stealin'
-Gordon Lightfoot, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (1976) 

On November 10, 1975, two ships made their way in tandem across the stormy waters of Lake Superior. One was the Arthur M. Anderson, led by Captain Jesse Cooper. The other, captained by Ernest McSorley, was the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.

The ship was last seen on radar around 7:15 p.m. All 29 men on board were lost with it, and today, more than four decades after the most famous shipwreck in Great Lakes history, the cause is still a mystery.

Here's what we do know about the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, and what happened to it that fateful day:

1. IT WAS THE LARGEST SHIP ON THE GREAT LAKES.

The large cargo vessels that roamed the five Great Lakes were known as lakers, and the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was, at the time, the biggest ever built. It was constructed as a “maximum sized” bulk carrier and spanned 729 feet—the first laker to reach that length—sat 39 feet high with a width of 75 feet, and weighed more than 13,000 tons without cargo. It was christened on June 8, 1958, and made its first voyage on September 24 the same year. 

2. THE SHIP WAS OWNED BY AN INSURANCE COMPANY.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Great Lakes Engineering Works of Ecorse, Michigan, was contracted to build the ship in 1957 by Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company, which had invested heavily in the iron and minerals industries. With the commissioning of the Fitzgerald, Northwestern Mutual became the first American insurance company to build its own ship—at a cost of $8.4 million, the most expensive price tag for a freighter at the time, according to Michael Schumacher’s The Mighty Fitz.

3. IT WAS NAMED AFTER THE HEAD OF THE COMPANY.

The chairman of Northwestern Mutual had a long history with the Great Lakes shipping industry. Edmund Fitzgerald’s grandfather captained a ship on the lakes, his father owned a shipyard, and they both had ships named after them. After construction of the Fitzgerald was complete, Northwestern Mutual placed its charter with the Columbia Transportation Division of Oglebay Norton Company, based in Cleveland. 

4. THE SHIP'S MAIN JOB WAS HAULING IRON ORE. 


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Most lakers traversing the Great Lakes and the connecting waterways carry massive amounts of raw materials such as rock, salt, and grain. The Edmund Fitzgerald generally loaded taconite, low-grade iron ore, from mines on the shores of Minnesota and transported the pellets to steel mills near Detroit and Toledo, Ohio.

5. "THE FITZ" WAS WELL-KNOWN EVEN BEFORE IT SANK.

Its impressive size made the ship popular with boat-watchers, and over the years it garnered many nicknames, including “The Queen of the Great Lakes,” “The Toledo Express,” and the unfortunate “Titanic of the Great Lakes.” Crowds would watch as the massive freighter moved through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The “Soo” Locks, which connect Lake Superior to Lake Huron, allowed the Fitz to reach ports on the lower Great Lakes.

6. THE SHIP RAN INTO A DEADLY STORM ON LAKE SUPERIOR.

November is a brutal month on the Great Lakes. Frequent storms and hurricane-force winds can batter even the toughest-built freighters. On November 9, the Fitz was loaded with 26,116 tons of iron ore pellets at the Burlington Northern Railroad Dock in Superior, Wisconsin. It left at 2:30 p.m. A second ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, sailed 10-15 miles behind the Fitzgerald as a precaution, and the two ships remained in radio contact until just after 7 p.m. on November 10.

Gale warnings had been issued by the National Weather Service the previous day, and by the morning of the 10th, the advisories had been upgraded to an official storm warning. 

As swells reached 35 feet and winds raged at nearly 100 mph, the ship contacted Coast Guard officials in Sault Ste. Marie and said they were taking on water. Later, a blizzard obscured the Fitz on the Anderson’s radar, but Captain Ernest McSorley, who was on his final voyage before retirement, assured a crew member on the Anderson at 7:10 p.m. that, “We are holding our own.” It was the last anyone heard from McSorley or the Fitzgerald.

7. NO DISTRESS SIGNAL WAS SENT.

After that, there was nothing on the radar. No radio contact. The ship was approximately 15 miles north of Whitefish Point when it seemingly vanished. Captain Cooper, on the Anderson, was in contact with the Coast Guard and made it to Whitefish Point sometime after 8 p.m. with no sign or word from the Fitzgerald. Later, the Anderson made its way back into the storm to search for the ship, but found only a pair of lifeboats and debris. 

8. ALL 29 CREW MEMBERS DIED. 

Along with the captain, the other crew members of the Fitzgerald included porters, oilers, engineers, maintenance workers, cooks, watchmen, deck hands, and wheelsmen. Most crew members were from Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota.

9. THERE IS STILL NO DEFINITIVE EXPLANATION FOR THE SINKING.

The treacherous weather conditions are an obvious factor, but experts differ on what they think specifically caused the accident. Following the wreck, the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board agreed that the tragedy was likely due to faulty cargo hatches, which led to flooding. Predictably, there are still those who harbor other theories, including unsecured hatches, maintenance troubles, massive waves, structural issues, and yes, even aliens. Author and Great Lakes historian Frederick Stonehouse posited that the ship likely hit a shoal and took on too much water before plunging into Lake Superior.

10. THE TRAGEDY WAS IMMORTALIZED BY A CANADIAN FOLK SINGER.

Gordon Lightfoot, who had released 10 albums from 1966 to 1975, was inspired to write the ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” after reading an article about the tragedy in Newsweek. He included the song on his 1976 album Summertime Dream, and the nearly six-minute single reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts that year and became Lightfoot’s second-most successful hit.

11. FAMILY MEMBERS REQUESTED A SYMBOLIC MEMORIAL FROM THE SHIP.

The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard deployed planes and cutters with magnetic anomaly detectors, sidescan sonar, and sonar survey to find the wreckage. In May, a Navy underwater recovery vehicle was sent to the site, and on May 20, 1976, the ship was spotted 535 below the surface of the lake.

In the decades since, only a handful of people have been able to see the wreck, which lies in two pieces. A pair of divers made their way down in 1995, the same year a crew—with help from the Canadian Navy, the National Geographic Society, Sony, and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians—retrieved the ship's bell at the behest of the families of those who were lost. The Canadian government has since prohibited access to the site. 

In eerie archival tapes below, you can hear Anderson skipper Jesse Cooper correspond with the Coast Guard, and see video of the wreck.

12. THERE'S AN ANNUAL REMEMBRANCE DAY.

The annual Edmund Fitzgerald memorial ceremony takes place on November 10th at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. The recovered and restored bell will toll 29 times for each member of the Fitzgerald's crew, and a 30th for the estimated 30,000 mariners lost on the Great Lakes.

For more on the story and the ship, visit S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online

This article originally appeared in 2015.

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