News / Africa

Ancient Tooth Plaque Reveals Diet

Al Khiday is located in Central Sudan. Archeologists say the site was populated for many thousands of years.
Al Khiday is located in Central Sudan. Archeologists say the site was populated for many thousands of years.

Multimedia

Audio
Joe DeCapua

Long before the development of agriculture, our prehistoric ancestors had a good knowledge of plants – not just for food, but for medicine. Researchers found evidence of this by studying some ancient teeth found in Central Sudan.

Listen to De Capua report on ancient teeth
Listen to De Capua report on ancient teethi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

Dental hygiene has become an important part of modern-day health care. And many millions of dollars are spent every year to get or keep teeth and gums healthy. One of the things dentists warn their patients about is dental calculus or tarter – a very hard form of plaque that forms around teeth. It may take a lot of scraping or the use of ultrasonic tools to remove it.

That type of plaque has given researchers an insight into people who lived thousands of years ago along the White Nile at Al Khiday. It’s about 25 kilometers south of Omdurman.

Karen Hardy is the lead author of a study published in PLOS ONE. She and her colleagues went to the site to analyze the compounds clinging to the ancient teeth.

“We were approached by the excavators of the Sudanese site. We were very interested in working at this site because it has a long sequence and it’s also in a relatively hot area. And we wanted to whether the chemical compounds survived right through the sequence. And, in fact, in this hot place, we discovered that they survived very well, indeed.”

Hardy is a research professor at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

She said, “It’s a little bit like when you go out into an archeological site. Until you start looking you don’t really know what you’re going to find. We were hoping for evidence of ancient diet, particularly evidence of the use of plants in ancient diets before agriculture developed. That’s something that is very difficult to get hold of. It’s very difficult to find.”

But they did find it and the tartar told a tale. The people of Al Khiday were well aware of the use of plants thousands of years before agriculture arrived on the scene in 4500 BC and long after.

“We found evidence of plants. We could see the physical evidence in the form of the microfossils on microscope slides. And we also got chemical compounds that pointed in this case specifically to this plant purple nut sedge right through the sequence. In ancient Egypt, it was used as a component of perfume. It was used in water purification. And it also has a lot of medicinal uses that have been recorded by the ancient Greeks and the ancient Egyptians,” said Hardy.

It’s believed purple nut sedge may have the ability to inhibit the growth of Streptococcus mutans. It’s bacteria that help cause tooth decay. And its effectiveness appears to be borne out in many ancient teeth which showed few cavities.

However, purple nut sedge is not so popular today. In fact, Hardy said it’s now considered a “scourge” in tropical and sub-tropical regions. It’s been called the “world’s most expensive weed” because it’s so invasive and costs so much to eradicate once it invades agricultural fields.

Nevertheless, Hardy said the discovery of its widespread use in ancient Central Sudan tells a lot about the population.

“It’s very clear that they were very well integrated into their environment -- that they understood their environments very well -- that they knew how to exploit the things that were available in their environment. I think that we probably grossly underestimated their abilities actually.”

The findings also shed light on their pre-historic diet and dispel some misconceptions.

Hardy said, “Up to the present, the evidence has not been there for plants. There has been a strong focus on the use of meat, meat products, simply because that is what is found. It’s found in evidence for animal bones spread across sites -- strong evidence of protein. And there simply has not been the evidence there for the plants. Now hopefully with this kind of study that we’re doing we’re going to be able to start getting closer to identifying some of the plant based things that people ate. Because, of course, they really had to eat plants. You can’t survive on protein alone.”

Professor Hardy and her colleagues are now working on many different archeological sites with varying time periods. She said that they may discover the use of other plants by ancient people long since forgotten. 

You May Like

Ukraine: Mysterious 'Roaming Tank' Reportedly Takes Aim at Smugglers

Ukraine's TV, print media, Facebook abuzz with reports a 'roaming tank' is on the loose, destroying vehicles of those involved in smuggling More

US Wildlife Service Begins Probe of Killing of Cecil the Lion

Minnesota man accused of killing beast is in hiding, has been asked to contact US officials; White House to review extradition petition More

Video Kerry Five-Nation Tour to Cover Security, Iran Nuclear Deal

Secretary of state will visit Egypt, Qatar, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam to discuss security issues, Iran nuclear deal, Trans-Pacific Partnership More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs