Ancient Greek Pill-Poppers Dosed Themselves With Carrots and Yarrow

By Joseph Calamia | September 10, 2010 11:33 am

Arabic_herbal_medicine_guidPill-popping ancients liked a good dose of vegetables, archaeobotanists have found after analyzing plant DNA in Greek-made pills from a 130 BC shipwreck.

Though archaeologists have known about the ship since the 1980s, this is the first time researchers have had a crack at analyzing the drugs found onboard. Using the GenBank genetic database as their guide, they have found that the pills appear to contain carrot, parsley, radish, alfalfa, chestnut, celery, wild onion, yarrow, oak, and cabbage.

Geneticist Robert Fleischer of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park says that many of the ingredients match those described in ancient texts, New Scientist reports. Yarrow was meant to slow blood coming from a wound, and carrot–as described by Pedanius Dioscorides, a pharmacologist in Rome–was thought to ward off reptiles and aid in conception.

Fleischer and colleagues presented these first results yesterday at the Fourth International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Denmark, and Nature’s blog The Great Beyond reports that the pills also contained some surprises. For one, researchers found sunflower or helianthus believed to be a New World plant unknown to the Europeans until the 1400s. Now researchers must determine if the ancient Greeks really prescribed sunflower concoctions or if the some modern, ancient drug handlers contaminated the find. They also hope to find “theriaca,” a medicine described in ancient texts as containing 80 different plants–a pill to put the modern health drink V8 to shame.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons / Dioscorides: Materia Medica.

  • Emanuela

    Thanks for circulating this news on cutting-edge research. However, Therian should be in fact Theriac, or Theriaca. it is wrongly spelt in the original article in New Scientist, and it seems nobody amended it so far. Those interested in Theriac will find information in internet. Here is the description in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theriac

  • Joseph Calamia

    Thanks, Emanuela. Fixed.

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