Top Ten Historical Health and Medical Discoveries of 2015

Top Ten Historical Health and Medical Discoveries of 2015


There is much more to archaeology than just learning about our past. The study of the ancient world has also led to astounding discoveries that may have real utility in the modern day. As well as discoveries that have revealed that ancient peoples were more advanced than previously realized with regards to health and medical care, scientists believe that some of their knowledge may even provide life-saving benefits today. Here we examine ten amazing health and medical discoveries of 2015.

10. Ancient Pompeii Victims Reveal Great Teeth and Good Health

Ancient Pompeii Victims Reveal Great Teeth and Good Health

CT scanners were used on the plaster casts of the Mount Vesuvius victims from Pompeii. Preliminary results showed that, in general, they had great teeth and were in remarkably good health before the volcanic eruption. This new discovery goes against the commonly held belief that Romans were often hedonists that enjoyed consuming in excess whenever possible.

Especially surprising for the scientists is that the ancient Pompeiians had great dental records, despite the poor dental care available in 79 AD. “They ate better than we did and have really good teeth.” Elisa Vanacore, a dental expert, said in a press release.  The Pompeiians ate a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in sugars.

30 of the 86 Pompeiian plaster casts have passed through the scanning process so far. The results are providing more details on the lives of the individuals found from the site. “It will reveal much about the victims: their age, sex, what they ate, what diseases they had and what class of society they belonged to. This will be a great step forward in our knowledge of antiquity.” Massimo Osanna, the archaeological superintendent of Pompeii, said.

9. Viking diet was better than in many parts of the Medieval world

Viking diet was better than in many parts of the Medieval world

The Vikings are famous for their great feasting halls, in which an image of a rowdy bunch of beer-drinking men gnawing on meaty bones comes to mind.  But what did they really consume besides beer and mead in their dining rooms? New research revealed they had a rich and varied diet, and ate better than their medieval counterparts in Britain.

The Vikings apparently didn’t roast or fry their meat but rather boiled it. Some of the meat was game, but especially in the lower latitudes they ate domesticated cattle, horses, sheep and goats and pork. They kept ducks, geese and chickens for meat and eggs. In the northlands, the Vikings hunted elk, deer, reindeer, bear, boar, squirrels, hare and wildfowl more than their southern cousins.

Vikings fished the Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea for cod, haddock, herring, mackerel and other fish. They hunted seals and porpoises but usually ate beached whales instead of hunting them.

Dairy, vegetables and fruits, which were much wilder then than now; and seeds for oil were a big part of the Viking diet. They ate various types of berries, apples, sloes and plums and preserved them by drying them. They grew and gathered vegetables such as carrots, turnips, parsnips, spinach, celery, cabbage, fava beans, peas and radishes.

While they ate oats, barley and rye and made flatbread from the barley, most of it was used to make beer.

8. Russian scientists make progress on secret of eternal life

Russian scientists make progress on secret of eternal life

Scientists decoded the DNA of a bacteria found thriving in ancient permafrost, and are now seeking to understand the genes which provide its extraordinary longevity.  Work has also been underway to study a so far unexplained positive impact on living organisms, notably human blood cells, mice, fruit flies, and crops.

The bacteria were originally found on Mamontova Gora - Mammoth Mountain - in Siberia's Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in 2009 by Dr Anatoli Brouchkov, head of the Geocryology Department, Moscow State University.  Similar bacteria were discovered by Siberian scientist Vladimir Repin in the brain of an extinct woolly mammoth preserved by permafrost.

'We did a lot of experiments on mice and fruit flies and we saw the sustainable impact of our bacteria on their longevity and fertility,' said Dr Brouchkov. 'But we do not know yet exactly how it works. In fact, we do not know exactly how aspirin works, for example, but it does. The same is true here: we cannot understand the mechanism, but we see the impact.'

Describing the discoveries as a 'scientific sensation' and an 'elixir of life', Yakutsk epidemiologist Dr Viktor Chernyavsky said: 'The bacteria gives out biologically active substances throughout its life, which activates the immune status of experimental animals.' As a result, 'mice grannies not only began to dance, but also produced offspring'.

7. Builders under Pharaoh Akhenaten worked so hard they broke their backs

Builders under Pharaoh Akhenaten worked so hard they broke their backs

When ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten ordered the construction of the new city of Amarna dedicated to the sun god Aten, more than 20,000 people moved there to do the back-breaking work. The work was so strenuous that it resulted in numerous broken bones, including many fractured spinal bones, said a study by archaeologists who examined skeletal remains from a commoners’ cemetery at Amarna.

The team only examined skeletons with more than 50 percent of the bones remaining and found that in addition to probably work-related fractures and degenerative joint disease, they also had smaller-than-average stature suggesting lifelong malnutrition and other hardships.

Amarna was built around 1330 BC as a place where Aten alone could be worshiped. The authors said the city of Amarna was built quickly, in part because of introduction of a standardized limestone building block. The weight of this block was about 70 kilograms (154 pounds). The workers carried the blocks production-line style, handing stones down the line to the next person in line. The authors speculate that these heavy blocks caused many of the bad injuries, including degenerative joint disease and fractures, in the Amarna workers.

6. Paleolithic Toothache: Oldest Dentistry Revealed

Paleolithic Toothache: Oldest Dentistry Revealed

Researchers are undoubtedly smiling over a 14,000-years-old tooth that revealed the oldest known dentistry techniques, dating back to the Late Upper Paleolithic (between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago). The infected tooth was found to have been partially cleaned with flint tools, marking an important development in the history of prehistoric dental surgery treatments.

The Paleolithic patient’s well-preserved skeleton was found in northern Italy in 1988, and it revealed he was a young man when he died, in his mid-twenties. The skeletal remains were between 13,820 and 14,160 years old.

An international team of researchers, headed by Stefano Benazzi, paleoanthropologist at the University of Bologna, examined the remarkable find, which represents the oldest archaeological example of dental surgery on an identifiable condition.

5. Ancient Peruvian Mummy Surprises Researchers with Antibiotic-Resistant Genes  

A mummy uncovered at the ancient site of Cusco in Peru surprised scientists with what was contained in its gut. Genes linked to antibiotic resistance have been found in the Pre-Columbian mummy’s colon. These gene mutations occurred naturally, long before the introduction of modern medical antibiotics.

The mummy, identified as a woman who was between 18 and 23 years old at the time of her death, had been brought to Italy in the late 19th century, where it was donated to a museum and housed with 11 other mummies.

Many of the antibiotic-resistant genes found in the ancient woman’s remains would have made treatment with modern antibiotics ineffective. These gene mutations are thought to have “occurred naturally in 1,000-year-old bacteria and are not necessarily linked to the overuse of antibiotics.”

While experts call for reduced antibiotic use, they’re also looking for sources of new antibiotics that we have not yet developed resistances to. It is hoped that identification of antibiotic resistance genes in ancient humans, such as found in the 11th century Peruvian mummy, may give an understanding of diseases and treatments, and help in this search.

4. Ancient mega-virus that does not resemble any virus on Earth is set to be revived

Ancient mega-virus that does not resemble any virus on Earth is set to be revived

Evoking visions of mad scientists, French researchers are set to revive a mega-virus dormant for 30,000 years that they discovered in the permafrost of the Russian Arctic.

The French scientists, who awakened another Siberian virus, known as Pithovirus sibericum, in a petri dish in the lab in 2013, warn that climate change may awaken dangerous viruses in areas of the far north where soil or permafrost is melting and believe it is better to ‘know the enemy’. They found it near the same area as the latest discovery, which they named Mollivirus sibericum.

This is the fourth prehistoric virus found since 2003. Perhaps the most ground-breaking aspect of the research from 2013 and 2015 is the fact that these Siberian viruses don’t resemble any other virus known on Earth. Modern viruses are tiny and have only a few genes. But Pithovirus sibericum and Mollivirus sibericum contain 500 genes, placing it in a new category of viral giant, a family known as Megaviridae. “Sixty percent of its gene content doesn’t resemble anything on Earth,” said researcher Chantal Abergel.

3. 5,300-Year-Old Otzi the Iceman Yields Oldest Known Human Blood

 5,300-Year-Old Otzi the Iceman Yields Oldest Known Human Blood

This year, researchers found blood cells in the famous 5,300-year-old mummy found by hikers in the Austrian Alps years ago. Ötzi the Iceman’s blood is now the oldest known to science.

Ötzi was a victim of homicide. Researchers say he suffered a quick, violent death that was over quickly but may not have been painless, National Geographic reports. He had an arrow wound, but his death probably came from a blow to the back of his head.

No blood cells had been found in Ötzi since his discovery by German hikers in 1991 until recently. "There were no [blood] traces found, even when they opened some arteries, so it was thought maybe the blood had not preserved and had completely degraded, or that he lost too much blood because of the arrow injury" on his back, Albert Zink, head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy, told National Geographic.

However, using a nano-size probe, researchers spotted the distinctive doughnut shape of red-blood cells near the arrow wound and a cut on his right hand. They recorded the movements of the probe with a laser to get a three-dimensional image of the cells. The researchers also shone lasers on the wounds to reveal the molecular makeup of the substance to confirm it was indeed blood.

2. Medical Mystery of Usermontu: Why the Discovery of 2,600-Year-Old Knee Screw Left Experts Dumbfounded

Medical Mystery of Usermontu: Why the Discovery of 2,600-Year-Old Knee Screw Left Experts Dumbfounded

In 1971, the Rosicrucian Museum in California acquired a sealed ancient Egyptian coffin containing the well-preserved mummy of a high status Egyptian male. Decades later and a team of scientists made a shocking discovery – the mummy displayed evidence of an advanced surgical procedure carried out nearly 2,600 years ago. Inside the mummy’s left knee was a 9-inch metal orthopaedic pin that had been inserted with such advanced biomechanical principles, that initially scientists could not distinguish it from a modern-day procedure.

Analysis of the embalming procedure revealed that the mummy, known as ‘Usermontu’, was an upper-class Egyptian male who lived during the New Kingdom of Egypt (between 16th–11th century BC). His mummified remains are 5ft (1.5m) tall and display traces of red hair. Professor C. Wilfred Griggs from Brigham Young University, Utah, and a team of experts, carried out x-rays on the mummy of Usermontu. They were stunned when the x-rays revealed that one of the mummies had a 9-inch metal pin in its left knee.

Brigham Young University (BYU) reports that it was impossible to see that the metal implant was ancient from the x-ray alone, leading Professor Griggs to believe that the pin had been placed there in more modern times to reattach the leg to the rest of the body. However, extensive investigations revealed that the advanced procedure had been carried out in ancient times, approximately 2,600 years ago. The research team were astounded that the pin had been created with the same designs used today to create bone stabilization.

1. Medieval Medicine: 1,000-year-old Onion and Garlic Salve Kills Modern Bacterial SuperBugs

Medieval Medicine: 1,000-year-old Onion and Garlic Salve Kills Modern Bacterial SuperBugs

To the surprise and excitement of researchers, a ninth century Anglo-Saxon treatment for eye infections has been used successfully to kill tenacious bacteria cultures. The ancient remedy consisting of onion, garlic, cow bile and wine might be an effective weapon against modern antibiotic-resistant superbugs such as MRSA.

Scientists from the University of Nottingham’s Center for Biomolecular Sciences, UK, and Anglo-Saxon expert Dr. Christina Lee worked together to create the 1,000-year-old remedy found in Bald’s Leechbook, (also known as Medicinale Anglicum) a medical text written in Old English believed to be one of the earliest-known books of medical advice.

The medieval recipe for salve used to treat eye infections lists as ingredients: garlic, onion (or leek), wine, and cow bile, reports BBC News. The scientists were astonished to find that the ingredients alone had little effect, but when combined they were effective at killing 90 percent of the methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria cultures.

By April Holloway

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