In this day and age, the diverse array of products on supermarket shelves is often taken for granted.
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
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.”
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
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.