Enamel from teeth can serve as time capsules into lives lived

Enamel can tell the story of how someone lived —and died — more than 350 years ago.

Teeth can give insight into the past, researchers from the Museum of London Archaeology in England found when they excavated a mass grave used to bury victims of the 1665 Great Plague.

According to the British magazine Crossrail, “The Great Plague of 1665 was the last major bubonic plague epidemic in Britain and killed an estimated 100,000 people in London — almost a quarter of the population. Despite its scale, the pathogen responsible has eluded detection as the fast-acting disease left no traces on skeletons and the DNA has a low-survival rate when buried in the ground for hundreds of years.”

But modern scientific techniques have allowed scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany, to isolate this DNA from teeth extracted from the skeletons in the graves. Samples were taken from the teeth of some of those found there because the enamel of teeth helps to protect DNA after death. This means they can serve as time capsules, preserving genetic information that was circulating in an individual's bloodstream at the time of death.

Archaelogist Jay Carver said in Crossrail, “The discovery of the ancient DNA, which has eluded scientists for so long, is yet another piece of the jigsaw that we are piecing together to learn more about the lives and deaths of 16th to 18th Century Londoners.”

Since first being discovered, researchers have found many artifacts, including pottery and coffin handles.

Scientists plan to carry out further analysis of the skeletons to learn about their lives. Further analysis of their teeth should reveal information about their diets and the pollutants they were exposed to, the researchers told the BBC.

According to the BBC, analysis of the skeletons' teeth indicates that:

  • Many of the skeletons suffer from signs of malnutrition and 16 percent had rickets. Rickets is a defective mineralization or calcification of bones due to a deficiency or impaired metabolism of vitamin D, phosphorus or calcium, potentially leading to fractures and deformity.

  • There is a high rate of back damage and strain showing heavy manual labor.

  • The later skeletons had a high rate of upper body injury consistent with being involved in violent altercations.

To learn more about enamel, visit MouthHealthy.org and enter the word into the site’s search engine.

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