20 years ago, archaeologists unearthed a great haul from a sunken ship off the coast of Tuscany, Italy, bound from Syria and dating from 130 BC.
The ship, fashioned from walnut trees, contained a cargo of medicines, glassware, herbs and pills. The cargo has now been analysed for the first time by archaeobotanists, showing that the 2000 year old tablets contain a mixture of plant extracts, from celery to hibiscus.
Alain Touwaide, director of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions stated: “Medicinal plants have been identified before, but not a compound medicine, so this is really something new”
The pills, often ingested with diluted water and vinegar were discovered preserved inside tin boxes, similar to pill boxes used to store daily medication in modern society.
Inside one of the tin vessels, archaeologists found several circular tablets, (diameter 3 cm ca.), flat (thickness 5 mm.), and of green-grey colour, which seemed to be medicines, many still completely dry. They were less than an inch in diameter and about a third to a half inch thick.
DNA fragments in two of the pills were compared to sequences at the GenBank genetic database maintained by the US National Institutes of Health. They were able to identify carrot, radish, celery, wild onion, oak, cabbage, alfalfa and yarrow. Also found was hibiscus extract, probably imported from east Asia or the lands of present-day India or Ethiopia.
“What is remarkable is that we have written evidence of what plants were used for which disorders,” says Alisa Machalek, a science writer for the National Institute of Health
“This research is interesting, especially for medical historians, because it confirms that what we eat affects our bodies.”
Touwaide said the medicines discovered on the wreck support his theory that though apothecaries had access to hundreds of medicinal plants, they purposefully limited their palette to a few herbs but used them in different formulas to treat a range of ailments. “You’re in a better position if you reduce the number of substances. If you have substances that are easy to find and native to your region, you can always come up with a remedy,” said Touwaide.
The Hippocratic Collection, a series of ancient Greek texts attributed to Hippocrates, who is often called the father of Western medicine, refers to 380 medicinal herbs useful for a variety of ailments, Touwaide said, but he added that ancient Greek healers relied mainly on just 45 plants. Among the herbs found in the two tablets was wild carrot, for instance, which had been identified by the 1st-century Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides as a diuretic that was used to treat colic, wounds and poisonous bites.
The concoctions have also thrown archaeobotanists a few mysteries. Preliminary analyses of the ancient pills suggest they contain sunflower, a plant that is not thought to have existed in the Old World before Europeans discovered the Americas in the 1400s.
If the finding is confirmed, botanists may need to revise the traditional history of the plant and its diffusion, says Touwaide – but it’s impossible for now to be sure that the sunflower in the pills isn’t simply from recent contamination.
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