Herbal archaeology roundup 3

Taking a brief break from the bad science series, I thought it was time for another botanical blast from the past. Unfortunately, as far as I know, no one is specializing in the archaeology of herbs, but here and there, some really interesting stuff is being discovered. My definition of “herbs” here isn’t limited to the strictly medicinal, because after all it’s a fine line between medicine and food (if there even is one), and when we’re talking about the very ancient past, we are lucky when we can figure out what someone was ingesting–knowing why is often beyond our ken. Let’s proceed in chronological order! (Headings are links to articles.)

Oldest evidence for fungi in the human diet

Fly agaric, the most famous (toxic) member of the agaric mushroom family.

Fly agaric, the most famous (magic) member of the agaric mushroom family.

The “Red Lady” burial of El Mirón cave (Cantabria, Spain) dates to approximately 19,000 years ago and is very interesting. This individual, a woman aged about 35-40, was given special treatment. Really, anyone buried during the Palaeolithic was probably receiving special treatment, because very few graves have been found. Interestingly, a number of the burials that are known contain people who were physically unusual. That was the subject of one of my first grad school papers (sigh, good times)–but sadly that was so long ago that I don’t remember all the specific examples. An individual from a double burial at Romito, Italy had achondroplasia; and the woman from the triple burial at Dolní Věstonice, Czech Republic probably suffered from chondrodysplasia calcificans punctata (probably the milder X-chromosome-linked variant), a rare genetic disorder, “complicated by trauma and early fractures of the upper limbs.” In my research I found that a statistically significant proportion of Palaeolithic burials contained people who would have looked different, and in some cases been differently-abled, than other members of the community. (I really should have worked that up for publication because as far as I know, no one else has. There is this article that suggests these burials might be human sacrifices but since there’s no evidence for violent death/murder in these burials, I think it’s a bit of a reach to assume these people were sacrificed. But I digress.) The Red Lady was in robust good health, other than being dead, but she did show evidence of another common theme of Palaeolithic burials, which is that the bodies were sometimes covered in red ochre (iron mineral pigment). The Red Lady’s body was covered with ochre, and at some people people went back to the burial and applied more ochre to the bones. Moreover, pollen in the grave suggests that people may have left flowers there.

Moving on to the mushrooms, analysis of the Red Lady’s fossilized tooth plaque reveals that she ate fungi, making this the oldest evidence of fungi in the human diet (you can be sure it goes back further though). Remains of multiple types of mushrooms were found, including ones belonging to the Agaric family. Some agaric mushrooms are harmless, but some are majorly hallucinogenic (and/or poisonous): “There is some evidence from neolithic and Bronze Age sites in Piedmont in the Italian Alps that suggest psychotropic mushrooms were used in rituals.” Maybe their use extends even further back in time.

High on henbane in the Neolithic?

Black henbane

Black henbane

So far only a single charred black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) seed has been found at Ilendentsi, Bulgarian, a settlement dated to around 5800 BC. However, archaeologists are tentatively speculating that the residents may have been consuming henbane, a psychotropic. Henbane is a member of the Solanaceae, a relative of nightshade, datura, and mandrake and in medieval times was used as an ingredient in witches’ “flying ointments.” In other words, they are really toxic if not used in tiny quantities–maybe that’s why they have only found one seed at Ilendentsi! Henbane was also found in pottery from the stone circle at Balfarg, Scotland, bolstering the interpretation that the circle was used for ceremonial/ritual purposes.

Scythians liked their opium with a cannabis chaser

Artist's reconstruction of Scythians getting sooo high.

Artist’s reconstruction of Scythians getting sooo high, man.

Ornate gold cups from the Sengileevskoe-2 kurgan (South Caucasus, Russia) contained a black residue with traces of opium and cannabis. This, along with other archaeological sites, confirms Herodotus’ claim that the Scythians used cannabis, but so far as I know this is the first evidence for their use of opium (I could be wrong, because it was certainly used long before the date of the Sengileevskoe-2 burial around 400 BC).

An ancient Graeco-Egyptian hangover cure

Nike, the goddess of victory, crowns an athlete...or helps him with a hangover.

Nike, the goddess of victory, crowns an athlete…or helps him with a hangover?

How did you pull yourself together after a night on the town 1,900 years ago? By wearing a garland of Alexandrian laurel leaves (Danae racemosa, formerly Ruscus racemosus) around your neck. This comes from a trove of medical papyri discovered at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Dioscorides wrote in somewhat greater depth, recommending a topical application of pounded leaves to cure headache, and the juice of the leaves mixed with wine to sooth stomach ache, bring on menstruation, or urine. A garland of Alexandrian laurel (this time worn on the head) was still being recommended in the 16th century. Because the exact “recipe” for the garland isn’t included in any of the articles I found, but one article says “possibly” worn around the neck, I wonder if in fact it was always meant to be worn about the head–that would fit with the instructions in Dioscorides and the 16th-century herbal. According to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Plants, Alexandrian laurel is used as a culinary spice and contains vitamins and antioxidant flavonoids. The authors found that rats receiving a high dose of D. racemosa produced more sperm,, suggesting it may be useful in treating infertility.

Medieval eye-salve cures MRSA

Facsimile page from Bald's Leechbeek

Facsimile page from Bald’s Leechbook

A recipe for treating eye infections in the 9th-century Anglo-Saxon medical text Bald’s Leechbook describes a salve made from onion, garlic, wine, and cow bile, steeped for nine days. The remedy was recreated by microbiology researchers at the University of Nottingham (they even used English wine!) and tested on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a.k.a., MRSA. The recipe killed up to 90% of the MRSA bacteria, and the researchers concluded that it was the combination of ingredients–rather than any single ingredient–that did the trick.

The contents of this Maya “death vase” might make you wish you were dead

The sort of thing one might see in a Maya vision. Here a spirit emerges form a serpent, which rises from a basket filled with bark paper. The paper was used to absorb sacrificial blood, usually taken from a queen's tongue or king's penis. Ow.

The sort of thing one might see in a Maya vision. Here a spirit emerges from the mouth of a serpent, which rises from a basket filled with bark paper. The paper was used to absorb sacrificial blood, usually taken from a queen’s tongue or king’s penis, and then burned. Ow.

Meanwhile in the “New” World, the Maya were consuming some pretty potent stuff. At a site in Hondurus archaeologists discovered a vessel containing pollen from corn (maize), cacao, and false ipecac (Pscychotria emetica or Ronabea emetica)–the latter a plant which, as its species name indicates, causes vomiting. One interpretation is that the purpose was to have visions and so communicate with the spirit world. (The Maya also used chocolate enemas. Now I love chocolate, but it seems to me that is not the best way to enjoy it.) Although it’s not mentioned in the article just exactly how barfing your guts up is supposed to lead to having visions, many members of the genus Psychotria contain DMT, a psychedelic. However, some cultures have uses vomiting (and other bodily processes of excretion) as a purification, though it’s not known to have been done by the Maya. Speaking of vomit…

Ancient Cahokians were super buzzed–and really sick

Artist's reconstruction of Cahokia at its peak.

Artist’s reconstruction of Cahokia at its peak.

Cahokia, the largest metropolis of pre-Columbian North America, was situated in Illinois directly across the river from where St. Louis would later be established. Once again, plant remains in a cup have provided evidence that locals were drinking a botanical brew–this one made from the leaves of yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). Once again, the species name gives a clue as the effect of this beverage, and once again, archaeologists have speculated that vomiting was part of some purificatory ritual. In this case, there is further evidence that this “black drink” was used in ritual contexts, because once Europeans arrived they recorded that men from cultures all over the American southeast drank the black drink for purification. It’s use dates back 1000 years. Aside from its nauseating properties, the holly drink contained theobromine (also found in chocolate) and 6 times as much caffeine as coffee. Those people must never have slept. I. vomitoria doesn’t grow around Cahokia, so this is also evidence for very long-distance trade networks, which is also seen in the distribution of other materials, especially ceremonial ones such as copper, shells, and iconography.

I found it very interesting that a couple of the comments on this article say that yaupon holly makes a nice tea and does not result in copious barfing. This may be a dosage issue. While a “mildly stimulating” and “intoxicating” beverage can be made from the dried and roasted leaves, the historical texts indicate that the leaves were toasted and then boiled for several hours to produce a thick decoction that inducing immediate vomiting (source).

Well, I hope you enjoyed this installment of the herbal archaeology roundup! I will continue to bring you all the herbal archaeology news–or should I say “olds”–that’s fit to print.

Diet dogma is dumb

I hadn’t intended to return to the subject of the paleo diet, but in a moment of synchronicity, just as I was rolling my eyes I stumbled across an article entitled “Archaeologists Officially Declare Collective Sigh over ‘Paleo Diet’.”

I am not one to ignore a synchronicity, so I’m revisiting the topic.


(Previously, like palaeoethnobotanist Dr. Britta Hoyes, quoted in the article, I concluded: “Look, the diet itself is sound; it’s the philosophy that’s bullshit. Eat what you want. Just leave the damn cavemen out of it.” I now have to slightly revise my stance. If you want to see why, keep reading.)

“Archaeologists Officially Declare…” is a rundown of the results of a two-day conference in Frankfurt where archaeologists got together to discuss the silliness that is the paleo diet, pointing out some major flaws in the philosophy, which I summarize below:

  • There is no such thing as the paleo diet. Humans have had thousands of kinds of healthy diets. “You simply do not see specific, trans-regional trends in human subsistence in the archaeological record. People can live off everything from whale blubber to seeds and grasses. You want to know what the ideal human diet consists of? Everything. Humans can and will eat everything, and we are remarkably successful not in spite of this fact, but because of it.” (Hoyes)
  • Indeed, palaeolithic people ate anything they could get their hands on: “You really want to be paleo? Then don’t buy anything from a store. Gather and kill what you need to eat. Wild grasses and tubers, acorns, gophers, crickets- They all provide a lot of nutrition. You’ll spend a lot of energy gathering the stuff, of course, and you’re going to be hungry, but that’ll help you maintain that lean physique you’re after. And hunting down the neighbor’s cats for dinner because you’ve already eaten your way through the local squirrel population will probably give you all the exercise you’ll ever need.” (Hoyes)
  • Besides, you really can’t even access the species that palaeolithic people ate. Almost everything available now–besides totally wild species like chipmunks and birch trees–has been modified by agriculturalists. “The notion that we have not yet adapted to eat wheat, yet we have had sufficient time to adapt to kale or lentils is ridiculous. In fact, for most practitioners of the Paleo Diet, who are typically westerners, the majority of the food they consume has been available to their gene pool for less than five centuries. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, potatoes, avocados, pecans, cashews, and blueberries are all New World crops, and have only been on the dinner table of African and Eurasian populations for probably 10 generations of their evolutionary history. Europeans have been eating grain for the last 10,000 years; we’ve been eating sweet potatoes for less than 500.” (Dr. Karl Fenst)
  • What was good for humans in terms of natural selection was determined by reproductive success, not individual health. Individual health is not the same thing as evolutionary fitness. For one thing, “fitness,” in biological terms, is not a property that describes an individual, but rather an allele (a variant of a gene–for example, sticky earwax is one variant of a gene that makes earwax).  Every individual is a mess of both fit and unfit alleles. And anyway, fitness isn’t about living a long life, it’s about not-getting-dead just long enough to make babies. In terms of reproductive success, what is best for humans is what makes them have the most babies–and that happens to be agriculture. “As long as the diet of an individual keeps them alive long enough to successfully mate, then that diet has conferred an evolutionary advantage. By that metric, the agricultural revolution has proven to be the most effective dietary system in the history of our species. We are the most prolific higher-order vertebrate on the planet.” (Dr. Richard Wenkel). You’ll notice the earth was not massively overpopulated before farming.
  • This wasn’t mentioned in the article but in my opinion, the most imporant take-away message is that anything preaching “evolutionary correctness” should be avoided at all costs because the “correct” methods were usually made up by someone who wasn’t paying attention in their Anthropology 101 class. If someone says men are evolved to be cheaters, or women to be vain or have poor abstract thinking skills, or that humans can eat kale but not beans–call BS immediately. Such maxims are always oversimplifications, reductive, and are usually being used to justify bigotry or some other behavior that is frowned upon (maybe for good reason). When I say someone wasn’t paying attention in class I mean that they got only the most superficial, simplistic understanding of key points and failed to get any of the context or nuance.

Now I want to revise what I said about the paleo diet probably being healthy enough if you can afford it and are so inclined. I do realize there are many variants on the paleo diet theme, and I don’t even know all of them, so understand that I’m referring to the general principles. That is, that the diet should consist of meat, fresh fruit and veg, some nuts, and should not include (or include very few) grains, legumes, or dairy products.

Humans, across time and space, have eaten and will continue to eat pretty much anything we can stuff into our faces, and we haven’t died out yet. If we do make ourselves extinct, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be our diets that kill us as a species. So is the paleo diet, as Dr. Hoyes said, “sound”? In a sense it’s true–eat paleo or don’t, whatever. Even if you connect yourself 24/7 to a saturated fat IV you will probably live long enough to reproduce…although the IV pole and tube, the meat sweats, and probable failure to conform to current standards of beauty might get in the way of your sexy times.

It has been my experience–and I’m not claiming to be a dietician, nutritionist, food scientist, or even a thin person, but I am a person who eats food and is in pretty good health–that prescribing certain foods is more effective than proscribing them. That is, try thinking of what foods you need and must eat, and then make sure you do so, rather than thinking in terms of what foods are prohibited and trying to avoid them. First, it’s easier and, I dare say, more psychologically fulfilling, to take specific, positive action in support of health than to feel like you are either depriving yourself, or attempting to halt the decline of health. Second, if you are filling up on something healthful you’ll obviously have less room for the unhealthful stuff. For example, every day you could decide you must eat one serving of something fermented, six servings of vegetables, an ounce of chocolate, a tomato, a glass of wine, a naturally blue or purple food–or whatever. Your food prescription would depend on your individual needs. And that’s why you’ll never see this in a bestselling diet book–because there is no one size fits all. (Plus I don’t think anyone will pay me for The Trial-and-Error Diet!) For me, soy is not a good idea–for you, it might be awesome. To give yourself a shortcut through the process, think about what has worked or not worked for your family. My family has problems with blood sugar. We’re mostly hypoglycemic (and chronically depressed), and in the past some relatives drank alcohol to feel normal and ended up becoming big-time alcoholics. A couple became diabetic in later years. So I already know sugar and alcohol are going to be an issue for me. (By the way, I have found iris flower essence to be a huge help in preventing blood sugar crashes and helping normalize my blood sugar all day. But Matthew Wood says it only works that way for hypoglycemia, not diabetes.) Treat food the way you would treat herbal medicine, in other words.

I’ve noticed that people get just as insane about dietary orthodoxy as they do religious orthodoxy. For every person who swears by the GAPS, paleo, or Weston A. Price diets, you’ll find an equal number swearing those will kill you and only veganism, raw foods, or the USDA food pyramid is the way, the truth, and the light. There is much namecalling and accusations of chicanery, if not actual fraud, fly fast and furious.  The very dogmatism about health scares me more than the alarmist claims that such-and-such will kill me. Unfortunately it means that we’re really on our own here. It’s all trial and error. This is even more the case when we rely on the internet for information, since it creates a false feeling of consensus, and some search engines (ahem, Google) and social media (Facebook) effectively censor what you’re exposed to by using algorithms to “optimize” performance (i.e., to give you more and more of the same).

I think ultimately we need to calm down and ask ourselves what “health” means to us as individuals and why we are fighting for it. Then it becomes much easier to decide how to go about it.