Ancient DNA Reveals Ingredients of Roman Medicine

Ancient Roman pharmacies must have looked a lot like vegetable gardens. DNA analysis of 2000-year-old medicinal tablets suggests the pills included onions, carrots and other garden vegetables.

Medical texts written by Pliny the elder and others detail herbal remedies the Romans and Greeks used, but not a lot is known about the contents of individual tablets, says Robert Fleischer, a geneticist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C. He presented early results from the analysis at the International Symposium of Biomolecular Archaeology in Copenhagen, Denmark in September 2010.

His team obtained the tablets from a shipwreck off the coast of Tuscany that probably occurred between 140 and 120 BCE, based on items recovered from the ship, which was excavated in the 1980s and 90s. Among them was a wooden medical chest stocked with well-preserved tablets filled with what looked like ground plants and vegetables.

To find out what the medicines were made of, Fleischer extracted DNA from two of the tablets and sequenced DNA from the chloroplasts. Among the components were vegetables such as onions, carrots, parsley and cabbage, as well as alfalfa, hawthorn, hibiscus and chestnut - all known to have grown in the Mediterranean at the time, or available to Romans.

"All this makes sense," says team member Alain Touwaide, also at the Smithsonian. Sequencing also turned up a few head scratchers, including a new world plant called helianthus, that probably represent contamination.

His team is working on ferreting out such contaminants and obtaining more tablets, so those looking for a dose of Roman medicine might want to hang onto their trowels.

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