Teeth from victims of Irish famine reveal dietary insights

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Teeth from victims of Irish famine reveal dietary insights


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In a new study, researchers have found traces of maize, oats and potato in the plaque build-up on the teeth of victims of the Great Irish Famine. This memorial to the victims can be found in Dublin. (Photograph: Edward Haylan/Shutterstock)

Fri. 4. October 2019


EDINBURGH, UK: The Great Irish Famine is something etched into European history. The impact of the famine has been well documented, and in a new study that adds to this cache of information, researchers have analysed the dental calculus and plaque build-up on the teeth of the famine’s victims, finding evidence of maize, oats, potato, wheat and milk foodstuffs. They believe that this information is important because it confirms historical accounts.

The mid-nineteenth century famine, which was the result of successive potato crop failures, claimed an estimated one million lives. During that period, it was common for the dead to be buried in mass graves. For this study, researchers analysed the teeth of 42 people, aged approximately 13 years and older, who died in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse and were buried in one such grave.

“The results of this study is consistent with the historical accounts of the Irish labourer’s diet before and during the famine. It also shows how the notoriously monotonous potato diet of the poor was opportunistically supplemented by other foodstuffs, such as eggs and wheat, when made available to them,” said Dr Jonny Geber of the University of Edinburgh’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology.

Collaborating in the study were researchers from the University of Edinburgh, Harvard University in Cambridge in the US, the University of Otago in Dunedin in New Zealand, the University of York in the UK, the University of Zurich in Switzerland, and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena in Germany.

The study, titled “Relief food subsistence revealed by microparticle and proteomic analyses of dental calculus from victims of the Great Irish Famine”, was published on 9 September 2019 in PNAS, ahead of inclusion in an issue.

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