Ancient Death-Smile Potion Decoded?
for National Geographic News
June 2, 2009
Thousands of years before the Joker gassed comic book victims into a grinning death, Phoenician colonists on the island of Sardinia (map) were forcing smiles on the faces of the dead.
Now scientists say they know just how the ancient seafaring traders created the gruesome smiles some 2,800 years ago—not with a toxic gas like Batman's nemesis but with a plant-based potion.
Grinning Phoenician mask picture
And someday that plant might be used to Botox-like effect, perhaps reducing rather than adding smile lines, the researchers speculate.
(Related: "Phoenician Blood Endures 3,000 Years, DNA Study Shows.")
Ancient Death Grins
By the eighth century B.C., Homer had coined the term "sardonic grin"—"sardonic" having its roots in "Sardinia"—in writings referring to the island's ritual killings via grimace-inducing potion.
Elderly people who could no longer care for themselves and criminals "were intoxicated with the sardonic herb and then killed by dropping from a high rock or by beating to death," according to the new study.
For centuries the herb's identity has been a mystery, but study leader Giovanni Appendino and colleagues say they have discovered a sardonic grin-inducing compound in a plant called hemlock water-dropwort.
The white-flowered plant grows on celery-like stalks along ponds and rivers on the island, now part of Italy.
Modern Suicide, Ancient Mystery
About a decade ago, a Sardinian shepherd committed suicide by eating a hemlock water-dropwort, leaving a corpse with a striking grin.
The death spurred study co-author Mauro Ballero, a botanist at the University of Cagliari in Sardinia, to study every dropwort-related fatality on the island in recent decades.
For the new study, Ballero and colleagues detailed the molecular structure of the plant's toxin and determined how it affects the human body.
Study leader Appendino, an organic chemist from the Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale in Italy, said, "The compound is highly toxic and causes symptoms similar to those described by the ancients for the sardonic smile, including facial paralysis."
(See pictures of the Phoenicians' enduring legacy around the Mediterranean.)
Hemlock water-dropwort "was already known to contain neurotoxins and was the most likely candidate for the sardonic herb," Appendino said.
The hairy buttercup (aka the Sardinian buttercup) was also a candidate, but that plant doesn't grow in the damp places mentioned in ancient texts, nor does it make sense in terms of its toxic properties, Appendino said.
"Besides, Sardinia is the only place all over the Mediterranean where [hemlock water-dropwort] grows," he added.
A Better Botox?
A member of the deadly hemlock family, the herb is especially dangerous because of its fragrant smell and sweet-tasting roots.
"Generally poisonous plants are bitter or in some way repel people," Appendino said.
Hemlock water-dropwort "is only the second case I know of a toxic plant that is actually attractive to our senses. People might easily eat it in a potion," he added—or perhaps apply it in a lotion.
Appendino speculates that the plant may prove to have a cosmetic application.
"It relaxes the muscles," he said, "so it removes wrinkles."