13 October 2005

Neolithic noodles

Slurping first: China invented noodles
A decades-long wrangle as to which culture gave birth to the noodle has finally been settled - the winner is China.

Italians, through the explorer Marco Polo, and Arabs had been the other claimants to a culinary staple that has been around for at least 2,000 years.

But a team of archaeologists, reporting in the British journal Nature, say there is now incontrovertible proof that China was faster to the pasta.

They discovered 4,000-year-old long, boiled strands of noodles protected by an upside-down bowl, embedded in a fine, brownish-yellow clay on a terrace of the Yellow River at Lajia, north-western China.

The site, on a flood plain whose sediments are three metres thick, has been under careful excavation since 1999.

The age of the find comes from carbon dating of the sediments in its lay.

The Neolithic noodles show no trace of the durum wheat, bread wheat or barley that usually make up today's pasta.

Instead, they are made from millet, one of the first grass plants to be farmed in the semi-arid plateau of north-western China.

I don't actually think this is incontrovertible proof at all. Noodles do not have to get invented only once and all this proves is the antiquity of noodles in East Asia. It tells us nothing about the great question of whther noodles were diffused or infused in other regions.

12 October 2005

Beware the jabbervarch culicivora, my son

African Spider Craves Human Blood, Scientists Find
Although many spiders have relatively poor eyesight - those that use webs to trap prey have no need for acute vision, Nelson says - jumping spiders are an exception.

'Salticids are predators that actively search for prey and mates and typically do not build webs,' she said. 'They have evolved eyes that support high-acuity vision suited to their active lifestyle.'

Spiders don't have the skin-piercing mouth parts needed to feed directly on human blood, but the mosquito-munching jumping spider appears to have got around this. The strategy has other advantages as well, Nelson points out.

'Blood-feeding is a dangerous activity,' she said. 'Animals that are bitten have a swatting response, and often the insect is killed.'

By eating mosquitoes, the spider avoids the risk of being squashed by an unwilling blood donor.

The study team suspects a blood meal is also biologically important to E. culicivora.

They say spiders expend a lot of energy breaking solid food down into liquid by injecting their prey with digestive enzymes.

'Perhaps blood is a ready-made, nutrient-rich liquid meal,' Nelson said.

I plan a moral triumph by posting this without a single joke about the resemblance between E culicivora and the contemporary conservative. And they're probably not either slithy or brilling.

11 October 2005

Merkeling through

Germany is to have a new Chancellor. Angela Merkel, will head a black/red grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. In return for the chancellorship, the Social Democrats get 8 ministries (including foreign affairs) and the vice-chancellorship. It will be an interesting test for consensus politics. Apparently, the second of two jokes in the campaign has been asking 'Wer wird Kanzlerin?' or 'Who is the (female) chancellor going to be?'

Merkel will be the first Bundeskanzlerin in Germany's history. It's not clear if the present chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, will be vice-chcancellor or even a member of the new government.