Dental plaque offers insights into diet during Great Irish Famine

Sept. 10 (UPI) — New analysis of dental calculus, or hardened plaque, on teeth dating to the 1840s offered scientists a detailed look at the diets of victims of the Great Famine of Ireland.

Chemical analysis of the calculus, or tartar, revealed the presence of corn, oats, potato, wheat and milk-based foods. Scientists found egg proteins in the dental plaque of three people. Eggs are associated with upper class diets.

The teeth were recovered from mass burial pits in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse. During the 19th century, workhouses, or poorhouses, were built to house the destitute. Residents were offered shelter and meager rations in exchange for hard labor.

During the Great Famine of Ireland, starved laborers flooded Ireland’s workhouses. The succession of potato crop failures during the 1840s led to the deaths of more than a million people.

Many of the victims were buried in mass graves. In 2005, at least 1,000 famine victims were recovered from the burial pit at the Kilkenny Union Workhouse.

Though analysis of plaque microparticles revealed proteins from oats, potato and wheat, the new research — published this week in the journal PNAS — suggests most of Ireland’s poor and working class relied on corn-based foods during the famine. The corn mostly arrived in the form of so-called Indian meal, or cornmeal, the majority of it imported from the United States.

According to the newly published study, the plaque records support the historical accounts of working class diets before and during the famine.

“It also shows how the notoriously monotonous potato diet of the poor was opportunistically supplemented by other foodstuffs, such as eggs and wheat, when made available to them,” Jonny Geber, an archaeologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, said in a news release. “The Great Irish Famine was one of the worst subsistence crises in history but it was foremost a social disaster induced by the lack of access to food and not the lack of food availability.”

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