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Ancient British teeth reveal secrets of past diets

The smiles of Britons, often teased for being goofy, yellow, and crooked, are now contributing to valuable insights into our ancestors' diets. A recent study led by researchers at the University of York and the Max Planck Institute has utilized found in tooth tartar to unveil the culinary habits of Britons from the Iron Age to the present.

Dental plaque, accumulating on teeth during one's lifetime, mineralizes into tartar or “dental calculus,” preserving proteins from the consumed food. While archaeological records struggle to identify evidence of many foods, particularly plant crops, proteins in tooth tartar can withstand the test of time, offering a unique window into historical diets.

Previous research established that dental calculus preserves milk proteins, but this new study goes further. It proves, for the first time, that tooth tartar can reveal more precise information about a wider range of food proteins, including those from plants. This breakthrough could significantly enhance our understanding of the diets and lifestyles of our ancestors, adding value to dental remains in the study of .

Dr. Camilla Speller, senior author from the University of York's Department of Archaeology, sees potential in this approach for detecting understudied vegetative crops, especially in regions where botanical remains are not preserved. She notes its precision in identifying foodstuffs compared to other methods such as DNA and isotope analysis, as it can distinguish between different crops and indicate the consumption of dairy products like milk or cheese.

The researchers analyzed 100 archaeological samples from across Britain, along with 14 samples from living dental patients and recently deceased individuals. About one-third of the analyzed samples revealed potential dietary proteins. Dr. Speller highlights findings related to individuals from the Victorian era, identifying proteins linked to plant foods like oats, peas, and cabbage family vegetables. Some teeth even showed evidence of both milk and oats, prompting whimsical speculation about porridge consumption.

In modern samples, the researchers discovered proteins reflecting a global British diet, including those associated with potatoes, soybeans, peanuts, and milk proteins. Dr. Jessica Hendy, the first author from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, expresses excitement about this discovery, emphasizing that dental calculus harbors dietary information, including food products that don't typically survive in archaeological sites.

This study's findings promise to refine -detection methods and address specific challenges in ancient diet research, opening a fascinating window into the culinary habits of our ancestors.

Source: University of York

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