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

On Everest, Helicopters Rescue Stranded Climbers

Choppers transport some of more than 100 mountaineers trapped after deadly quake, avalanches More

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

In 2005, a Paris suburb exploded into violence after two teenagers were electrocuted as they hid from police; since then, somethings have changed, others not More

US, Japan Announce Historic Revision of Defense Cooperation Guidelines

Nations say new guidelines will be 'cornerstone for peace and security' in Asia-Pacific region while also serving as 'platform for a more stable international security environment' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europei
X
Henry Ridgwell
April 26, 2015 10:36 PM
Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video ‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europe

Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

January’s terrorist attacks and fears of more to come are casting a spotlight on France’s neglected suburbs. Home to many immigrants, and sometimes hubs of crime, they were rocked by rioting a decade ago. Lisa Bryant visited the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 violence first broke out, and has this report about what has changed and what has not.
Video

Video Gay Marriage Goes Before US Supreme Court

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether gay people have a constitutional right to marriage. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the case could lead to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, or a continuation of the status quo in which individual states decide whether to recognize gay unions.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.

VOA Blogs