A Groundbreaking New Study On British Teeth Reveals Ancient Diets From The Iron Age To Modern Times

New research on the dental plaque of skeletons shows how the British diet has evolved over thousands of years.

A new study of the teeth of skeletons shows British diets from the Iron Age to modern times.
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New research on the dental plaque of skeletons shows how the British diet has evolved over thousands of years.

A new international study has just been published that focuses on the diets of British people from the Iron Age to modern times, something that was accomplished by analyzing the dental plaque that had been left behind on the teeth of 100 skeletons from different regions of England.

According to the BBC, this new research yields a wealth of information as it illustrates the different foods that have been consumed by the British which hadn’t been recorded for posterity and also hadn’t been acquired through other archaeological research.

Dental plaque is something that slowly builds up on the teeth of humans and is then mineralized, forming what is known as dental calculus. In this way, the proteins that we consume leave traces of the foods that we have eaten throughout our lives, and the tartar that holds them can easily last for many thousands of years.

While modern samples of teeth showed that diets were much more varied and contained things like soybeans, peanut and potatoes, this was not the case for more ancient diets. However, researchers did find evidence that humans were drinking milk as long ago as 6,500 BC.

Dr. Camilla Speller, who works at the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, explained that this study will help scientists to learn more about crops that haven’t been thoroughly studied before, as Phys.org reports.

“This approach may be particularly useful in the detection of understudied vegetative crops, especially in regions where macrobotantical remains are not preserved. 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.”

Dr. Speller also noted that when researchers examined plaque hidden in the teeth of skeletons from the Victorian era they noticed that there were plenty of plant proteins, but also found what may be evidence of their love for porridge.

“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. Occasionally, we find evidence of milk and oats in the same mouth—I like to think it’s from eating porridge!”

Dr. Jessica Hendy, an author of the study from the Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute, explained that one of the most exciting aspects of this new research is that so far there has been very little information from archaeological excavations relating to how diets of the British have evolved over the years.

“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.”

The new study on British diets from the Iron Age to the modern era through the study of dental plaque has been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.