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Planet Earth

#53: Medical Secrets Inside a 2,000-Year-Old Pill

By Will HuntDecember 16, 2010 6:00 AM


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Archaeologists excavating an ancient Greek shipwreck near Tuscany two decades ago unearthed a unique find: a medicine chest whose contents included a tin of 2,000-year-old medical tablets. Last year DNA analysis of the pills finally shed light on their makeup. Geneticist Robert Fleischer and historian Alain Touwaide of the Smithsonian Institution identified the remedies by comparing DNA sequences against a reference genetics database. The green tablets, each about an inch wide and one-fifth inch thick, contained a garden’s worth of ingredients, including carrot, parsley, celery, cabbage, alfalfa, and wild onion.

The pills match prescriptions described by early physicians —a dream come true for historians. “It is the first proof that the ancient texts can be trusted,” Touwaide says. Drug companies may want to take note too. “There may be herbal combinations in these pills that no one’s tested,” Fleischer says.

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