Isotopic analysis of teeth may identify signs of starvation in human tissues from 19th century Irish workhouse residents, according to a study published earlier this month in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.
To investigate dietary and physiological changes during the Great Irish Famine of the 19th century, researchers from the University of Bradford, UK, analysed the carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios of a single tooth per person taken from 20 Kilkenny Union workhouse residents in Ireland, including some who died in childhood.
They then compared the dentine collagen extracted from the teeth for clues about dietary intake at the time of tooth growth, with bone collagen taken from the ribs providing information about the final few years of life including food availability at the time.
Their analysis not only recorded the expected dietary change from potatoes to maize—which according to historical records, was imported from America to provide relief during the famine—it also revealed prolonged nutritional and other physiological stress resulting from insufficient sustenance during childhood.
This study shows that incremental dentine collagen isotope analysis may identify periods of physiological stress such as famine in both adult and juvenile skeletons if it occurred during tooth development.
Researcher Julia Beaumont said, “Our scientific analysis produces detailed dietary histories from the time when teeth are growing. Because the workhouse residents were given maize as a famine relief food, we could identify a marker for starvation in the teeth formed just before the change, the first time this has been seen in dentine.”
These findings may have forensic and archaeological applications for the identification of populations and individuals for whom nutritional stress may have contributed to their death, though further research is needed to refine the method of ageing the incremental collagen.