The extracted teeth of Irish famine victims in the 19th century indicate scientific evidence of starvation, a study has revealed.
The Guardian reports that the research is the first time analysis of the stable isotopes of nitrogen and carbon in human teeth has been used to establish markers for starvation. One of the the researchers has said that the findings could allow new insights into both archaeological finds and current investigations.
Julia Beaumont of the University of Bradford and Janet Montgomery of Durham University studied some individuals who had survived earlier period of famine before the Great Hunger of 1845-52 and others who died of malnutrition after trying to survive on a diet of imported American maize, which was distributed as a food aid.
The analysis suggests that changing levels of nitrogen and carbon were incorrectly interpreted in the past as indicators of a high status rich diet, and that the changing levels are in fact evidence of body tissue breaking down and being recycled.
“We’re seeing evidence here of the body virtually eating itself as starvation gets a grip,” Beaumont said.
“When the potato crop was good the evidence is that the people’s diet was remarkably good. The maize was also potentially a useful foodstuff, but the problem was cooking it properly and for long enough to make it nutritious - in Mexico lime is used to help break it down, but of course in Ireland there was no knowledge of that, and no way to make use of the information if they had known,” she said.
The famine victims suffered from scurvy as a result of their new diet.
Sir Robert Peel, the prime minuter, first imported the maize, which was so hated it came to be known as “Peel’s brimstone.”
The teeth and bone samples used in the study, which is published in the journal PLOS ONE, came from children and adults who were buried in a graveyard that was excavated ten years ago. The burial ground held the remains of nearly 1,000 people who died in the Kilkenny Union workhouse during the famine or shortly afterwards. The Museum of Ireland gave researchers permission to take the samples.
“Such data from people who were nutritionally deprived to such a degree is extremely rare,” the academics write, “and the opportunity to use their untold stories is of significant import for the assessment of both modern and ancient individuals where nutritional stress may be suspected and soft tissues are not available.”