Metabolomics Applications in Archaeology

The Identification of Tobacco Exposure in the Past

Science in Archaeology Lunch Talks (SALT)
12 May 2016

Speakers: Dr. Young Choi (Natural Products Laboratory, Institute of Biology, Leiden University) and Dr. Sarah Inskip (Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University)

Abstract: In modern society the risk tobacco use and exposure poses in terms of developing disease is demonstrated by numerous clinical studies. It causes cancer and cardiovascular disease and is a major factor in the development of numerous other life changing chronic diseases.

Tobacco use, however, is not a new phenomenon. Arriving in Europe in the 16th century, it rapidly permeated all levels of society. Little consideration is given to the impact it would have had on the population in terms of changing disease prevalence, with researchers preferring to focus on tobacco’s obvious economic impact.

This lacuna arises from the lack of historic sources on the matter, but also problems of connecting tobacco use with disease in the past. Here we discuss how a collaboration between the Natural Products Laboratory and Archaeology has addressed this problem.

Metabolomics, a technique currently used to profile all the metabolites in organisms to describe biological their biological status, can be used to detect tobacco exposure in bone. Combining this approach with osteoarchaeology, it is possible to explore how the presence of disease related to tobacco use. This will provide a new perspective of the ramifications of mass production and consumption of tobacco on societies which, in turn, will demonstrate the impact that wider factors, such as early modern globalisation, had on the lives of past people.