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

Jihadist Assassin says Goal of Tunisia Murders Was Chaos

Abu Muqatil at-Tunusi’s remarks in a propaganda interview also cast light on attack on Bardo Museum More

Russia Denies License to Tatar-Language TV Station in Crimea

OSCE official says denial shows 'politically selective censorship of free and independent voices in Crimea is continuing' More

Kenyan Startups Tackle Expensive Remittances Through Bitcoin

Some think services could give Western Union a run for its money, though others say it’s still got a long way to go More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leadersi
X
Aru Pande
April 01, 2015 9:09 PM
The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leaders

The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video Buhari: Nigeria Has ‘Embraced Democracy’

Nigeria woke up to a new president-elect Wednesday, Muhammadu Buhari. But people say democracy is the real winner as the country embarks on its first peaceful handover of power since the end of military rule in 1999. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Abuja.
Video

Video Tiny Camera Sees Inside Blood Vessels

Ahead of any surgical procedure, doctors try to learn as much as possible about the state of the organs they plan to operate on. A new camera developed in the Netherlands can now make that easier - giving surgeons an incredibly detailed look inside blood vessels, all the way to the patient’s heart. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Latin American Groups Seek Fans at Texas Music Festival

Latin American music groups played all over Austin, Texas, during the recent South by Southwest festival, and some made fans out of locals as well as people from around the world who had come to hear music. Such exposure can boost such groups' image back home. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Stockton Community, Police, Work to Improve Relations

Relations are tense between minority communities and police departments around the United States following police shootings that have generated widely-publicized protests. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Stockton, California, where police and community groups are working toward solutions, with backing from Washington.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More