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

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

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

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.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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Little Weesy Coppin, the Ghost That Foretold the Franklin Expedition’s Fate

An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
Royal Museums Greenwich, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On May 19, 1845, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from England and headed for the Arctic. Commanding the expedition was Sir John Franklin, a distinguished naval officer with a few Arctic voyages under his belt. Britain’s Admiralty was hopeful that, within a year, he would arrive in the Bering Strait having successfully charted the Northwest Passage.

But as 1846 slipped away with no sign of either ship—and no word from the explorers—it became clear that something had gone wrong. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, lobbied the Admiralty to investigate, and so began a steady stream of expeditions to locate the missing vessels. By spring 1850, they were none the wiser as to what had happened to the ships or the sailors. The country was captivated by the mystery, and Lady Jane was growing increasingly desperate for any lead.

It was around this time that a shipbuilder named William Coppin sent her a strange letter. The ghost of his daughter, he said, knew where to find the Franklin expedition.

Weesy Puts on a Show

Coppin lived in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, with his wife, his wife’s sister, and the couple’s five young children. In May 1849, their 3-year-old daughter, Louisa (Weesy for short) had died of gastric fever, but that hardly stopped her from being present. Soon after her death, her siblings reported seeing a “ball of bluish light” that they all agreed was Weesy; they even started setting a place for her at meals.

One night, Weesy’s older sister told her aunt that the words “Mr. Mackay is dead” were glowing on the wall of the bedroom. Though her aunt couldn’t see them herself, she nevertheless asked after Mr. Mackay—a banker friend of the family—the next day, and discovered that he had indeed passed away the previous night. Weeks later, the aunt suggested that the children put Weesy’s apparent clairvoyance to good use by questioning her about the fate of Sir John Franklin.

Weesy responded with flair, filling the room with an Arctic scene that showed two ships amid snowy mountains and narrow channels. When asked if Franklin himself was still alive, Weesy revealed “a round-faced Man [ascending] the Mast and [waving] his hat,” and she answered a query about his exact location with a series of abbreviations that included “P.RI” and “BS.”

An illustration of the two ships from Francis Watt's Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep.Kokstein, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The spectral illuminations were only visible to Weesy’s sister Anne, who copied them onto paper and showed her father upon his return from a trip. Coppin wasn’t wholly disbelieving, but he didn’t act on the information immediately. Then, in May 1850, after hearing that Lady Jane was preparing to send a ship to search for her husband, he wrote her a letter detailing Weesy’s appearance.

“[The abbreviations] constantly lead me to believe that [Sir John Franklin] is in Prince Regent Inlet off Barrow’s Strait, likely in the Victory in Felix Harbour or not far from it at this moment,” he said, and encouraged Lady Jane to direct her commander to that area. Shortly after, he met with her in person to reiterate his advice.

Charting a Course

Here’s where accounts of the story begin to diverge. In 1889, a reverend named J. Henry Skewes published a book—at Coppin’s behest—that credited Weesy’s vision with causing Lady Jane to point her expedition south, toward Prince Regent Inlet, instead of north, like she had been planning. While it’s true that the government had focused most of its search north toward Wellington Channel, it’s not true that Lady Jane herself had only considered a northern mission. In June 1850, she mentioned in a letter that Coppin visited her after “reading in the newspaper a paragraph of the ship’s being about to sail for Regent Inlet,” implying that she had already intended to explore that region.

Wellington Channel to the north, and Prince Regent Inlet to the south.TerraMetrics/Google

Skewes’s book also alleged that Weesy’s original directions had been much clearer than a few cryptic initials. According to him, she illuminated the words “Erebus and Terror. Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel.” At that point, no place named “Victoria Channel” existed on the map, which Skewes used as evidence of Weesy’s omniscience. Since the Coppins were collaborating with Skewes, it’s possible that they simply recalled the events differently than they had decades earlier. They had also repeated the same séance several times, so the stream of intelligible words may have come later. In Coppin’s initial letter to Lady Jane, however, he said nothing about a “Victoria Channel.”

Even though Lady Jane had probably already set her sights on the south, Coppin’s conviction did seem to encourage her, and she instructed him to share Weesy’s vision with a select few influential figures around town. In early June, she saw off Captain Charles Codrington Forsyth in the schooner Prince Albert, hoping he’d return with news of her husband from beyond the inlet.

Unfortunately, the inlet was frozen, and Forsyth couldn’t get through.

Breaking News and Breaking Ice

The expedition wasn’t entirely fruitless—it was Forsyth who broke the news in England that another expedition had located three graves on Beechey Island, thus confirming that the Terror and Erebus had at least spent part of the winter in Wellington Channel [PDF]. There was still a chance that Franklin and his men had journeyed on toward Prince Regent Inlet after stopping on the island.

Lady Jane began preparing another mission, this time with Captain William Kennedy in command, and Coppin stuck around to help with shipbuilding and fundraising. Kennedy even spent a few days with the Coppins in Londonderry and supposedly corroborated Weesy’s account (though he didn’t see her messages for himself). Kennedy managed to make it through Prince Regent Inlet, but pivoted westward and came back empty-handed.

A portrait of William Kennedy painted by Stephen Pearce in 1853.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Independent of Lady Jane's endeavors, a Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor named John Rae was making significantly more progress in the area. After passing through the inlet in 1851, he came to a narrow body of water that he christened “Victoria Strait” before encountering ice and turning back. During a surveying mission in 1854, Rae spoke with local Inuit, who reported having come across a few dozen white men on King William Island—not far from Victoria Strait. He even bought several English-made items from the Inuit, including a plate that bore Sir John Franklin’s name.

Now, Lady Jane directed her attention to King William Island, financing an expedition led by Francis Leopold McClintock in the late 1850s. In 1859, his lieutenant finally discovered an incontrovertible clue to the Franklin expedition’s fate: a boat, skeletons, and a note that explained Franklin had died in June 1847 and his crew had abandoned the ships—marooned in ice—in April 1848.

Little Weesy’s Contested Legacy

The note found during McClintock's 1859 expedition.Petecarney, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coppin wasted no time asking Lady Jane to validate that Weesy’s leads (as Anne had transcribed them) had, in fact, been correct. Lady Jane obliged.

“I have no hesitation in telling you that the child’s chart … represented the ships as being in a channel which we believed at the time to be inaccessible, but which it has since been found they actually navigated,” she wrote. “Moreover, the names ‘Victory’ and ‘Victoria’ written by the little girl upon her chart correspond with that of the point (Point Victory) on King William’s Land, where the important record of the Erebus and Terror was found, and with that of the strait or channel (Victoria Strait) where the ships were finally lost.”

That said, she did decline returning the original chart to him. As Shane McCorristine writes in his book The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration, that could have been because she feared becoming a laughingstock if he published it. With Franklin’s demise no longer a mystery, entertaining the supernatural no longer had value.

A sketch of Lady Jane Franklin drawn by Amélie Romilly in 1816.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Emmet Collection of Manuscripts Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Coppin’s story stayed under the radar until Skewes released his book, Sir John Franklin: The True Secret of the Discovery of His Fate, nearly 15 years after Lady Franklin’s death in 1875. The author so fervently believed that Weesy had expertly directed explorers to the Franklin expedition that his account seems exaggerated at best and downright ludicrous at worst, despite plenty of firsthand details from the Coppins. After its debut, John Rae and Francis McClintock both denied that the long-dead toddler had influenced their exploratory routes in any way.

Furthermore, as historian Russell Potter explains on his blog Visions of the North, Weesy’s phantasmal allegations weren’t totally accurate. Though the idea that Franklin may have gone south instead of north did ultimately lead to some discoveries, there’s no evidence that either the Terror or the Erebus actually went through Prince Regent Inlet. And when Weesy revealed the vision of a healthy Franklin waving his hat from the top of the mast, he had already been dead for more than two years.

In short, the ghost of Little Weesy didn’t single-handedly solve the mystery of the missing Franklin expedition. (In fact, the ships themselves weren’t even located until 2014 and 2016 off the southwestern coast of King William Island, far from Prince Regent Inlet and south of the island's Victory Point.) But you’d be hard-pressed to prove that her ghost didn’t exist at all—and considering that the story helped her father secure about a decade’s worth of work and plenty of high-society connections, she made an impact from beyond the grave.