Image of the Day: Famine Victim Teeth

Dental calculus provides a look into the diets of 42 people who died during the Great Irish Famine.

Sep 12, 2019
Emily Makowski
Dentition of a 26- to 35-year-old woman who died during the Great Irish Famine. Calculus deposit sampling was taken from one tooth (inset).
JONNY GEBER (2019)

Nearly 1 million people died in Ireland during the Great Famine of 1845–1852, which was caused by a fungus that destroyed potato crops. A study published September 9 in PNAS examined calculus, a form of hardened plaque that builds up over time, from the teeth of 42 victims who were once buried in a mass grave next to a workhouse in Kilkenny, Ireland. 

Jonny Geber at the University of Edinburgh and colleagues conducted microparticle analysis to determine what people ate before and during the famine. They found that corn was the most common type of starch granule present, followed by oats and wheat. These findings corroborate written information about the famine. 

Surprisingly, the researchers also detected peptides from the egg protein ovalbumin. “Eggs were regarded as ‘luxury food’ for the working classes,” the authors write. Although members of the working class kept poultry, they usually sold eggs instead of eating them. The researchers’ findings suggest that people who resorted to workhouses for aid during the famine came from different social classes and had different life experiences before the famine started. 

J. Geber et al., “Relief food subsistence revealed by microparticle and proteomic analyses of dental calculus from victims of the Great Irish Famine,” doi/10.1073/pnas.1908839116, PNAS, 2019.

Emily Makowski is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at emakowski@the-scientist.com.