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Tartar from ancient teeth to reveal how Iron Age Britons ate

"This is exciting because it shows that archaeological dental calculus harbors dietary information, including food products that ordinarily do not survive in archaeological sites," said archaeologist Jessica Hendy.

By
Brooks Hays
Tartar from medieval tooth samples can help scientists understand what early Britons were eating, British scientists say. Photo by Camilla Speller/University of York
Tartar from medieval tooth samples can help scientists understand what early Britons were eating, British scientists say. Photo by Camilla Speller/University of York

July 18 (UPI) -- Archaeologists have developed a new technique for analyzing tooth tartar. The latest research into ancient tooth tartar suggests the mineralized residue can offer insights into the diets of early Britons.

Tartar is dental plaque that has become mineralized by components on saliva. The hardened "dental calculus" can trap proteins found in the foods we eat.

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Previous research has shown milk proteins can survive in tartar for thousands of years, but the latest research is the first to show a variety of food proteins, including plant proteins, can persist -- chemically intact -- inside archaeological tooth tartar.

The new findings, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggest a closer look at dental remains could help archaeologists more accurately trace the evolution of the human diet.

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"This approach may be particularly useful in the detection of understudied vegetative crops, especially in regions where macrobotanical remains are not preserved," Camilla Speller, an archaeologist at the University of York, said in a news release. "It may offer a more precise way of identifying foodstuffs compared to other methods such as ancient DNA and isotope analysis as it can distinguish between different crops and indicate whether people were consuming dairy products, like milk or cheese."

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In a proof-of-concept experiment, researchers analyzed 100 archaeological tartar samples found across Britain. Scientists also analyzed tartar from 14 dental patients and recently deceased individuals. More than a third of the samples yielded recognizable food proteins.

"In the teeth we look at from individuals who lived around the Victorian era we identified proteins related to plant foods, including oats, peas and vegetables in the cabbage family," Speller said. "Occasionally, we find evidence of milk and oats in the same mouth -- I like to think it's from eating porridge!"

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The modern tartar samples yielded proteins related to potatoes, soybeans and peanuts, evidence of the global British diet.

"While there is still a lot we don't know, this is exciting because it shows that archaeological dental calculus harbors dietary information, including food products that ordinarily do not survive in archaeological sites," said Jessica Hendy, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

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