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Thinking of popping to your nearest specialist store for some sesame oil, turmeric, or soy? Some things haven't changed in 3,700 years, it turns out...

At least, that's what a growing new field of research, palaeoproteomics, suggests. Human mouths are full of bacteria, which continually petrify and form dental calculus — which can entrap and preserve tiny food particles. These remnants can be accessed and analysed thousands of years later, providing remarkable insight into the dietary habits of our ancestors.

Philip Stockhammer, an archaeologist at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU), has worked with Christina Warinner, a molecular archaeologist at Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and a team of researchers to apply this new method to the eastern Mediterranean, including the Bronze Age site of Megiddo and the Early Iron Age site of Tel Erani.

“Our high-resolution study of ancient proteins and plant residues from human dental calculus is the first of its kind to study the cuisines of the ancient Near East,” said Warinner, explaining its significance. “Our research demonstrates the great potential of these methods to detect foods that otherwise leave few archaeological traces. Dental calculus is such a valuable source of information about the lives of ancient peoples.”

SCIblog - 1 March 2021 - A trip to the Bronze Age dentist - image of woman's smile with perfect teeth

High-resolution analyses of ancient dental calculus have given us a whole new perspective on the diets of Bronze Age people.

The research team took samples from a range of individuals and analysed which food proteins and plant residues were preserved in their teeth. “This enables us to find traces of what a person ate,” said Stockhammer. “Anyone who does not practice good dental hygiene will still be telling us archaeologists what they have been eating thousands of years from now!”

Of course, it's not quite as simple as looking at the teeth of those who didn't thoroughly clean them nearly four millennia ago and hoping the proteins survived. “Interestingly, we find that allergy-associated proteins appear to be the most stable in human calculus”, remarked Ashley Scott, LMU biochemist and lead author. That might be because of the known thermostability of many allergens. For instance, the researchers were able to detect wheat via wheat gluten proteins, which they independently confirmed with a different method using a type of plant microfossil known as phytoliths.

This substance has previously been used to identify millet and date palm in the same area during the Bronze and Iron Ages but phytoliths are not plentiful or even present in many foods, which is why this research is so exciting — palaeoproteomics means foods that have left few other traces, such as sesame, can now be identified.

SCIblog - 1 March 2021 - A trip to the Bronze Age dentist - image of a pile of bananas

Research suggests that the humble banana was eaten throughout the Mediterranean far earlier than first thought.

The method has allowed the team to identify that people at these sites ate, among other things, sesame, turmeric, soy, and bananas far earlier than anyone had realised. “Exotic spices, fruits and oils from Asia had thus reached the Mediterranean several centuries, in some cases even millennia, earlier than had been previously thought,” explained Stockhammer.

The finds mean that we have direct evidence for a flourishing long-distance trade in fruits, spices, and oils, from East and South Asia to the Levant via Mesopotamia or Egypt as early as the second millennium BCE.

More than that, the analyses "provide crucial information on the spread of the banana around the world. No archaeological or written evidence had previously suggested such an early spread into the Mediterranean region,” according to Stockhammer (although the sudden appearance of bananas in West Africa a few centuries later has previously led archaeologists to believe that such a trade might have existed, this is the first evidence).

The team acknowledged that other explanations are possible, including that the individuals concerned had travelled to East or South Asia at some point but there is evidence for other trade in food and spices in the Eastern Mediterranean — for instance, we know Pharaoh Ramses II was buried with peppercorns from India in 1213 BCE.

But it certainly seems like some foods might have been popular in the Mediterranean for much longer than we realised, which might be an interesting thought to accompany you next time you add some spices or bananas to your shopping basket.

Science & Innovation

Galen (129-216 CE) is one of the most famous and influential medical practitioners in history but he was also a scientist, an author, a philosopher, and a celebrity. He wrote hundreds of treatises, travelled and studied widely, was the physician to three emperors, and left a legacy of scientific thought that lasted for fifteen hundred years — even today, his work has an influence.

Header image Editorial credit: Eray Adiguzel /

He grew up in Pergamum, an intellectual centre of the Mediterranean world, in a wealthy family that encouraged him to pursue academia and funded his travels to learn in the best environments available, acquiring the latest techniques in medicine and healing.

He understood that diet, exercise, and hygiene were essential for good health and put that into practice in the four years he spent working for the High Priest of Pergamum's Gladiator School. This was a high profile and high pressure role and we know he reduced the death rate dramatically in his four years there. The recommendation he got helped secure him a position in Rome, capital of the empire.

He was not popular in the city — at one point, he seems to have been chased out by the local physicians, who strenuously disagreed with his methods — but he was eventually summoned by the emperor Marcus Aurelius to be his personal physician. He was described by the emperor as, “First among doctors and unique among philosophers".

SCIblog 2nd February 2021 - Galen - line drawing image of Galen

Galen; Line engraving | Credit: Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons

Galen continued to navigate the difficult political environment of the imperial capital and was personal physician to two more emperors, while publishing prolifically and becoming one of the most well-known figures in the Roman Empire. Much of his work is lost to us but we still know a great deal about him, including that he had a flair for showmanship and controversy.

In the Greek world where he grew up, dissections had been common — of animals and humans. In Rome, this was not the case. In fact, human dissections were banned across the empire shortly before Galen arrived in the city. Undaunted, he gave a number of public anatomical demonstrations using pigs, monkeys, sheep, and goats to show his new city what they were missing (this was one of many incidents that contributed to local dislike of his methods as well as his increasing fame).

His legacy was huge, both because he recorded and critiqued the work of others in his field and because of the huge volumes of his own observations and theories. His texts were the foundation for much of medical education in the Islamic, Byzantine, and European worlds until the 17th Century.

The ban on human dissection likely limited his progress in some areas and many of his theories have (eventually) been disproved, such as the theory of the four humours — blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm — based on Hippocrates' system and elaborated, as well as the efficacy of bloodletting.

SCIblog 2nd February 2021 - Galen - image of an eye close-up

Galen observed that cataracts could be removed.

In other areas, however, he was remarkably successful. He observed that the heart has four valves that allow blood to flow in only one direction, that a patient's pulse or urine held clues to their disease, that urine forms in kidneys (previously thought to be the bladder), that arteries carry liquid blood (previously thought to be air), that cataracts could be removed from patients' eyes, among others. He also identified seven of the 12 cranial nerves, including the optic and acoustic nerves.

His focus on practical methods such as direct observation, dissection, and vivisection is obviously still relevant to modern medical research. Indeed, scientists who disproved his theories, such as Andreas Vesalius and Michael Servetus in the 16th century, did so using Galen's own methods.

The study of his work remains hugely important to the history and understanding of medicine and science, as well as the ancient world. The Galenic formulation, which deals with the principles of preparing and compounding medicines in order to optimise their absorption, is named after him.