Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Barley-Men AKA Roman Gladiators

I just watched a fascinating video about Roman Gladiators and how a recent archaeological study in Turkey determined that they were practically vegan. John McDougall, MD presents this information in a video excerpt from his talk, The Starch Solution, at the Healthy Lifestyle Expo 2009.



After the video discussion:
I found an article describing the conclusions the archaeologists made that Dr. McDougall refers to. Aside from their determination that the gladiators consumed a plant-based diet, they also decided they were fat. Fat gladiators?? I truly find that hard to believe.

Don't anthropologists have the tech to determine if a skeleton was that of an obese person rather than a lean or muscled person? Shouldn't these archeologists be running these tests or outsourcing them to confirm this instead of just saying...well, they ate lots of starches so they had to have been fat. That doesn't really sound scientific to me. Especially with what I know about a vegan diet. 

And I'm not saying they didn't drink the charred wood or bone ash where they supposedly got their calcium, but I have to say they probably got plenty of calcium from the greens they ate. Not to mention, since they didn't eat animal proteins, calcium wasn't leached from their bodies.

This article just reinforces my idea that we guess about a lot of things, especially in history.

5 comments:

Duke said...

I read several years ago gladiators were fed a mostly vegan diet. I guess it's true although I'm not sure how they know. For one thing it was considered good luck to associate with a winning gladiator so they were often invited to feasts. I suspect they ate meat there since it was served in all roman feasts.

Another fact to remember too is that gladiators were slaves. No one feeds the expensive stuff to slaves. I suspect the diet they ate had more to do with their owners not wanting to spend money on them than anything else. I'm not sure anyone has claimed gladiators wanted to be vegan. It was probably forced on the them. Most of them also didn't live very long so I doubt their owners worried much about how well they were fed.

It's still an interesting topic. It would be nice to know more about it.

Kenike said...

It's definitely an interesting topic. This was the first time I had heard of gladiators referred to as the barley-men. I know little about them, and didn't even watch the movie Gladiator. I was banning Russell Crowe movies at the time.

But, one thing I was thinking, even if they were slaves, they probably thought of them like prized hunting dogs, so they very well could have given them the choice bits of some foods. I'm curious about how their diet varied from the people who were poor in the area or the other slaves. Gladiators weren't the only slaves...so why feed them differently from other slaves unless there was a physical or health reason related to their ability to compete.

Missantrhopics said...

Well, I think it's a little callous to slam a whole profession based on one journalist's interview. Not to say that certain amount of speculation wouldn't be happening but I think the idea that archaeology is all just guesswork is a bit heavy handed.

Karl Grossscmidt (sp) only said they had subcutaneous fat which doesn't automatically equate to being flabby and unhealthy; it just means they were probably bigger than most other men. The word fat in any context seems to throw people off the deep end.

I think Dr. McDougall is getting a bit carried away with pushing his own agenda. Though journalists might skew things to look one way I don't believe the research suggests that gladiators were unhealthy and doesn't consequently suggest veganism is unhealthy (which seems to be McDougall's issue).

This is just a lot of pushing agenda's from both the media's side and McDougall's side. The researchers are not to be blamed for how their work gets manipulated.

Kenike said...

Whoa, wait a sec. I wasn't slamming any profession, nor suggesting that archaeology is all just guesswork. I think you misunderstood my last comment in the post, and maybe I didn't represent where I was coming from very well with that statement.

I am by no means dismissing a whole profession. I never meant for that to be an interpretation of my words. That thought was never even on my radar. For the record, I LOVE archaeology and find it utterly fascinating. Truly. I briefly considered it as a career when I went through my Indiana Jones phase (which I am actually still going through). I even bought National Geographic for a time and devoured all their stuff on the Mayan and Egyptian pyramids and everything like that. That said, there still is an element of guesswork and theory-building involved. Psychology, the area of study I did major in, can be considered just as much guesswork as archaeology. And yet, they both have great value. The trouble comes when they have guesses represented as facts.

My sentiment was meant to be very general about our sciences and belief progression. The easiest way for me to explain is to use the earth is flat metaphor. For ages we "knew" for a fact, the earth was flat. But, oh wait, NO! the earth is round. But oh wait, Pluto is NOT a planet like we first thought and taught in science class to millions of children. This drug helps your heart, oh wait, no really it causes heart attacks. Do you see where I am going with this? We don't just guess on archaeology, we guess on most subjects. For example, I think we are just now replacing old nutritional myths and 'knowledge' with better nutrition information, especially related to vegetarianism being healthy. And lately, I’ve been thinking how much we guess about health and the human body. A friend of mine has been trying to get diagnosed with some ailment that is causing extreme abdominal stress. The doctors keep telling her they have no idea what is wrong and it seems like a series of wild goose chases for her. The point is we are constantly replacing old guesses with new, better guesses.

We try to make our guesses educated ones or statistically represented, which is better than not, but that doesn’t mean they still aren’t mostly guesses in the end. Our world is too complicated for us not to guess repeatedly about things.

What's also been on my mind is that story in the news about how history books are being written in Texas...filtered through a very specific lens. I think much of our history which is supposed to be based on fact, is true maybe only from a certain point of view...as Obi-Wan Kenobi said. I am always wondering what it would be like to go back in time and actually witness what happened at an event and then compare it to what was written in our history books. I think we get a lot of things 'wrong'. There's nothing to be done about this because in many ways history and interpretations of scientific information are somewhat subjective. Because even if I did go back and witness that historical event, I’d come back and have only one interpretation of what happened and what was important. My truth might not be someone else’s. Science is supposed to be better about that, but in many ways it is not.

So, my statement was more of a...hey, we think this about the gladiators now, but this is only based on our current knowledge which seems particularly limited, especially based on the comments purported to be by the scientist. And to me, the archaeologist actually seemed behind the times in the science of nutrition. And if he is a paleopathologist, shouldn’t he be well-versed in nutrition?

Kenike said...

cont'd.

And maybe I watch too much fictional tv, but on Bones, they can study the bones and determine if a human was obese. The lack of mention of this in the study done bugged me. Perhaps it was done, but I suspect not or it would have given credence to any declaration that the gladiators were ‘fat’. But I can also see how the word fat might have been misinterpreted by the journalist, and then later by us readers. And then my real criticism is meant to only be of this journalist if he misrepresented the archaeologist, but of the archaeologist if he really did mean the gladiators were obese and determined this only by old nutrition information and not by scientific study of the bones themselves.

I totally understand that the media and the average person's inability to understand or consider reliability and validity concepts in scientific research are problems with communicating the 'results' of studies. So what part the journalist from the piece in discussion plays in this, I don't know.

And nevermind the agenda pushing, I will totally agree they both have one and that Dr. McDougall did a little bit of enhancing in his retelling [his use of the word 'blubber' comes to mind], but even just looking at this from a scientific view...I just didn't think that Karl Grossschmidt could make the declaration he was reported to make without more evidence. And I fully expect that the future holds more discoveries that will change some of what we think we know about gladiators yet again. And the fact is that this is a very common occurence in the field of archaeology...new discoveries rewrite the official story about a given historical population. It wasn't a disparagement, just a comment on the nature of humans and the nature of the business in both archaeology and historical sciences, but also in my mind, science in general.

I don't know. I hope this clears up my intentions behind the comment. It really was philosophically-based and not directed at one profession or one scienctific discipline but on the general nature of humans and their interpretations of the world.