Monday, July 11, 2011

Were Gladiators Really Fat Vegetarians?

Don Matesz, everyone's favorite apostate ex-paleo vegetarian shaman, points to this 2008 abstract, The Gladiator Diet, where Karl Grossschmidt (or more correctly Großschmidt) says essentially that gladiators were fat vegetarians, based on bone analysis from a gladiator graveyard found in Ephesus.

Unfortunately, the details in the article are very sketchy. I managed to dig a little deeper and found a couple more articles going way back where Dr Großschmidt says the same thing. Here's the text from a 2004 article (reproduced here) from the Telegraph, which in turn is about this 2004 documentary:
Dr Grossschmidt noticed from the bone analysis that, contrary to the normal effects of intensive training, the gladiators put on weight before a fight rather than lost it.

Bone samples were subjected to chemical analysis. While a normal meat and vegetable diet will show balanced levels of zinc and strontium, the gladiators' bones were very high in strontium and low in zinc - another indication of vegetarianism.

The density of the bone tissue was significantly higher than normal, exactly what one finds in modern athletes, he said. The bone enlargement was particularly pronounced in the feet - evidence that gladiators fought barefoot in the slippery arena sand.
 And here's another 2004 article with this quote from Dr Großschmidt:
"Tests performed on bits of bone taken from the skeletons of some 70 gladiators buried at Ephesus seem to prove that they ate mainly barley, beans and dried fruit," said Dr Karl Grossschmidt, who took part in the study by the Austrian Archaeological Institute

"This diet, which has been mentioned in the oral history, is rather sad but it gave the gladiators a lot of strength even if it made them fat," said Grossschmidt who is a member of the University of Vienna's Institute of Histology and Embryology.
So Dr Großschmidt has been quoted quite a bit saying basically the same thing. As far as I can tell, the only verifiable facts are that the bones had high density, not surprising, and that they had high levels of strontium and low levels of zinc. The low zinc thing could be indicative of a vegetarian diet, vegetarians are at risk for zinc deficiency.

And speaking of zinc deficiency, guess where soils were recently identified as being particularly low in zinc?
Central Anatolia, in Turkey, was a region with zinc-deficient soils and widespread zinc deficiency in humans. In 1993, a research project found that yields could be increased by 6 to 8-fold and children nutrition dramatically increased through zinc fertilization.

Through a partnership with Cukurova University, the State and the private company TOROS Agri Industry Group, zinc was added to fertilizers. While the product was initially made available at the same cost, the results were so convincing that Turkish farmers significantly increased the use of the zinc-fortified fertilizer (1 per cent of zinc) within a few short years, despite the repricing of the products to reflect the added value of the content.
And Ephesus is located in modern day Turkey, of course. Not a smoking gun, exactly, perhaps these soils were depleted of zinc over the last 1800 years, but if the soils are low in zinc then the animal that eat these plants are going to be low in zinc also, and the people who eat the animals will also be low in zinc. Maybe everyone in Ephesus was zinc deficient in circa 200 AD.

Next Dr Großschmidt says that the "oral history" supports his supposition of a diet of they ate mainly barley, beans and dried fruit. Oral history? What does that mean? Apparently there is some reference to gladiators as "barley-eaters". Where this comes from is left extremely vague. Color me skeptical.

And then there is this:
Dr Grossschmidt noticed from the bone analysis that, contrary to the normal effects of intensive training, the gladiators put on weight before a fight rather than lost it. 
Huh? How do you tell that from 1800 year old bones? Do bones have rings like trees? I'm no expert on bone analysis, but this sounds like a load of crap.

And this:
It was a boring diet, he admitted. "They got enough of this food every day to make them very fat and strong," he said. He concluded that they devised the diet primarily to protect themselves from slashing wounds and damage to nerves and blood vessels, with the layer of fat supplementing their scant armour.
I'm going to call this the sumo-gladiator hypothesis, and it's entirely supposition by Dr Großschmidt. It's also something I find very dubious.

First of all, sumo wrestling is a very specific sport which relies more than any other sport on very mass and inertia. Endurance and dexterity are minor factors. The body type required for knocking someone out of a small circle is going to be very different from that needed to fight an armed death match in a sandy arena, or for just about any other sport really.

Secondly, is a layer of fat really going to act as much protection against slashing wounds? Subcutaneous fat is also a lot easier to cut than hardened muscle, not to mention that it slows one down and impedes heat loss which would have likely been a factor on the coast of Asia Minor. I just don't buy it.

So the whole vegetarian sumo-gladiator hypothesis Dr Großschmidt puts forward seems to rest on low zinc bone content, some hearsay about gladiators being barley eaters, and his supposition that fat acts as some sort of armor. Personally, I don't think it is possible to say with any certainty what the gladiators ate. Perhaps, as slaves, they were denied access to the more expensive animal products. Maybe the low-zinc soil meant that most people in Ephesus were zinc deficient even if they ate an omnivorous diet. A comparison of gladiator bones to those of other contemporary citizens would be interesting in this regard.

I think it more likely that gladiators looked like this:

Boxer of Quirinal
Rather than this:

"I'm bigger than you and higher up the food chain. Get in my belly!!!"

Were they vegetarians? From the evidence Dr Großschmidt presents in these interviews, I think it's impossible to say. Is a vegetarian diet optimal for most humans, regardless whether or not they have to fight to the death with swords and tridents? Definitely not.

Addendum: the reference to gladiators as hordearii (the binomial name for common barley is hordeum vulgare), or barley-eater, apparently comes from Pliny although I've not found the actual quote.Wikipedia has this:
Pliny also noted barley was a special food of gladiators known as hordearii, "barley-eaters". However, by Roman times, he added that wheat had replaced barley as a staple.
But the footnoted reference is broken.

Also, the gladiator bones were compared to average contemporaries, my bad.
Grossschmidt and collaborator Fabian Kanz subjected bits of the bone to isotopic analysis, a technique that measures trace chemical elements such as calcium, strontium, and zinc, to see if they could find out why. They turned up some surprising results. Compared to the average inhabitant of Ephesus, gladiators ate more plants and very little animal protein.
It would be nice to read the actual article, rather than the abstract, but it doesn't seem to be available. Also I found this quote from Discovery Magazine (2007) on the relevance of high strontium:
Medical University of Vienna anthropologists Fabian Kanz and Karl Grossschmidt analyzed gladiator skeletons unearthed near an ancient Ephesus stadium in what is now Turkey. The researchers found high levels of the trace element strontium, associated with plant-based diets, in the athletes' bones. 
So the vegetarian argument, at least for these gladiators in Ephesus in the second century AD, seems to be stronger than my initial impression.

In the same article Discovery Magazine also wrote this:
The discovery validates historical accounts of what gladiators, who were rather hefty and short by today's standards, ate.

The tallest gladiators measured around 5 feet 5 inches tall.
Wait, what? So far as I can tell, the only historical "account" of what gladiators ate is this single reference by Pliny about hordearii. And what would this have to do with gladiators being short "by today's standards"? Were they short because they were eating a vegetarian diet since birth? Not getting enough protein? Because they were eating a neolithic diet full of "heart-healthy" whole grains?

Also, I think it is pretty clear Dr Großschmidt is not some sort of crypto-vegan with an agenda. He says this diet would have been "boring", and "rather sad" and would have made them fat. I'm just skeptical of his conclusions.

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