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

Mood Tense Ahead of Scotland Independence Vote

As race to persuade undecided voters continues, No voters say they believe life in Scotland will slowly improve and do not want to take a risk by endorsing independence More

South Africa’s 'Open Mosque' Admits Everyone, Including Critics

Open Mosque founder plans to welcome gay worshipers and allow women to lead prayers More

Ukrainian Activist in Despair About Future of Her Country

IrIna Dovgan, accused of being a spy and tortured by pro-Russian separatists, is appealing to UN Human Rights Council to support her country More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Spacei
X
September 17, 2014 4:20 AM
The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid