Analyzing tooth tartar to learn about ancient drug use

Tooth tartar may give clues about the use of drugs by ancient people. Looking at tartar, which can survive on fossils for more than 1 million years, is already a common archaeological method to study past diets. Now, Aarhus University forensic dentist Dorthe Bindslev and colleagues are using a similar technique to analyze tooth tarter for evidence of drugs. From the journal Science:

Bindslev and colleagues used hydroxyapatite—the main mineral in tartar—and mixed in known amounts of legal drugs like caffeine, nicotine, and cannabidiol, as well as controlled substances like oxycodone, cocaine, and heroin. They measured 67 drugs and drug metabolites by passing the mixtures through a high-performance mass spectrometer, which detected different molecules based on their charge and weight.

Then they tested their new method on 10 cadavers of suspected drug users undergoing autopsies in the Aarhus Department of Forensic Medicine and compared the results with those of blood-based drug tests. The novel protocol identified 44 drugs and metabolites—slightly more than standard blood work—including heroin, a heroin metabolite, and cocaine, they report in Forensic Science International[…]

The Aarhus team has already found nicotine and other drugs in the tartar of the Dutch skeletons, in results they hope to publish in the coming year. And Bindslev is eager to try the method on ancient teeth she's analyzed for other reasons, including remains from Viking sites and monasteries where monks administered early pharmaceuticals. 

"Tooth tartar could uncover the drug habits of ancient people" (Science via Daily Grail)

image: Gerbil (CC BY-SA 3.0)