Ancient Romans may have used traditional Chinese medicines

Ancient Romans may have used traditional Chinese medicines imported from Asia by spice traders to treat coeliac disease, study claims

  • The body of a woman with coeliac disease was discovered in Tuscany in 2008
  • Researchers studied her DNA to find she had genes responsible for the disease 
  • The new study examined plaque in her teeth to find evidence of herbal remedies
  • They found ginseng and tumeric which were unlikely to have been grown locally 

Ancient Romans used traditional Chinese medicine including roots and herbs only grown in Asia to treat condition such as coeliac disease, a new study reveals.

Researchers from the Tor Vergata University of Rome in Italy examined the 2,000-years-old remains of teeth and plaque of a young woman who lived with the disease.

It was the chemical residues in her dental plaque that pointed to the use of medicinal plants such as ginseng and turmeric to treat her condition.

Her remains were found in Tuscany in 2008 and an earlier study using DNA analysis found she had genes responsible for coeliac disease, as well as signs of bone loss.

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Researchers from the Tor Vergata University of Rome in Italy examined the 2,000 year old remains of teeth and plaque from a young woman living with the disease

The discovery of herbs and spices suggests there was a significant trade in medicinal plants between the Roman empire and the East, researchers say.

‘In a world without modern medicine people would use whatever remedies they thought would work,’ Eivind Heldaas Seland at the University of Bergen in Norway told the New Scientist. 

The skeleton belonged to a woman thought to be about 20 years old when she died.

She was found to have signs of malnutrition and bone loss, but was also buried with gold jewellery which means she was likely from a wealthy family.

When people with coeliac disease eat a gluten-rich diet they can suffer from abdominal pain and it can result in bone loss. 

This led to the original researchers suggesting she had the gluten-linked autoimmune disease, making her the first known sufferer.

The woman is thought to have lived in Tuscany when she died about 2,000 years ago. She was found with bone loss and malnutrition

The latest study, led by Angelo Gismondi and Antonella Canini, examines the dental records to get a better picture of her diet and health. 

They examined the plaque build up in her teeth as the sticky film coating can trap food particles and chemical residues, which gives hints at diet.

As well as finding herbal medicines, they discovered she had starch particles from wheat that suggested she had a gluten rich diet.

Eating those sorts of foods would have triggered autoimmune attacks and so backs up the early findings that she had coeliac, the team said.

The biggest surprise for the Italian researchers was discovering the herbs that didn’t grow in Italy at the time she lived.

It was the chemical residues in her dental plaque that pointed to the use of medicinal plants such as ginseng and tumeric to treat her condition

The team of researchers found a mixtures of herbs available locally including mint and valerian – but also more exotic solutions.

‘Plants have always represented a key factor in human culture and diet, since ancient times’, said co-lead author Gismondi. 

‘Our archaeobotanical data provided evidence that she came in contact with gluten-rich cereals such as wheat and barley. 

‘This result, associated with the indication of a genetic predisposition to coeliac and a metabolic stress observed by stable isotope analysis, could justify the individual’s premature death and all degenerative signs on her skeleton.’

The research has been published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. 


Coeliac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder in which gluten leads to damage in the small intestine.

Gluten provokes inflammation in the small intestine which affects the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. 

The condition is estimated to affect one in 100 people worldwide. 

One percent – or three million Americans – are living with coeliac disease.

There are more than 200 symptoms of coeliac disease but the more common ones are:

  • Abdominal bloating and pain

  • Chronic diarrhea

  • Vomiting

  • Constipation

  • Pale, foul-smelling, or fatty stool

  • Weight loss

  • Fatigue 

The only treatment for the disease and is a strict gluten-free diet. 

Only foods and beverages with a gluten content less than 20 parts per million are allowed.

Source: Celiac Disease Foundation

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