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A multidisciplinary approach for investigating dietary and medicinal habits of the Medieval population of Santa Severa (7th-15th centuries, Rome, Italy)

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  • Angelo Gismondi
  • Marica Baldoni
  • Micaela Gnes
  • Gabriele Scorrano
  • Alessia D'Agostino
  • Gabriele Di Marco
  • Giulietta Calabria
  • Michela Petrucci
  • Gundula Müldner
  • Matthew Von Tersch
  • Alessandra Nardi
  • Flavio Enei
  • Antonella Canini
  • Olga Rickards
  • Michelle Alexander
  • Cristina Martínez-Labarga


Publication details

JournalPLoS ONE
DateAccepted/In press - 18 Dec 2019
DatePublished (current) - 28 Jan 2020
Issue number1
Number of pages30
Pages (from-to)1-30
Original languageEnglish


A multidisciplinary approach, combining stable isotope analysis from bone proteins and investigations on dental calculus using DNA analysis, light microscopy, and gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry, was applied to reconstruct dietary and medicinal habits of the individuals recovered in the cemetery of the Castle of Santa Severa (7th-15th centuries CE; Rome, Italy). Stable isotope analysis was performed on 120 humans, 41 faunal specimens and 8 charred seeds. Dental calculus analyses were carried out on 94 samples. Overall, isotope data indicated an omnivorous diet based on C3-terrestrial protein, although some individuals possessed carbon values indicative of C4 plant consumption. In terms of animal protein, the diet was probably based on cattle, sheep, pig and chicken products, as witnessed by the archaeozoological findings. Evidence from calculus suggested the consumption of C3 cereals, Fabaceae, Fagaceae, milk and dairy products. Secondary metabolites of herbs and wine were also detected. The detection of marine fish ancient DNA, as well as of ω3 fatty acids in calculus, hypothesized the consumption of marine foodstuffs for this coastal population, despite the lack of a clear marine isotopic signal and the presence of polyunsaturated fatty acids in plant tissues. Moreover, the knowledge of ethnopharmacological tradition and the application of medicinal plants (e.g. Punica granatum L., Ephedra sp. L.) were also identified. The detection of artemisinin, known to have antimalarial properties, led to hypothesize the presence of malaria in the area. Altogether, the combined application of microscopy and biomolecular techniques provided an innovative reconstruction of Medieval lifeways in Central Italy.

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© 2020, Gismondi et al

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