Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Plaque Shows What Past Populations Ate

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Plaque Shows What Past Populations Ate

Article excerpt

While many modern humans brush and floss plaque (also known as tartar or dental calculus) from their teeth, some anthropologists are rejoicing that past civilizations may not have practiced such careful dental hygiene.

University of Nevada, Reno, researchers G. Richard Scott and Simon R. Poulson discovered that small particles of plaque removed from the teeth of old skeletons may provide clues about the diets of past populations.

Scott obtained samples of dental calculus from 58 skeletons buried in the Cathedral of Santa Maria in northern Spain dating from the 11th to 19th centuries to conduct research on diet. He sent small samples of dental calculus to Poulson at the University's Stable Isotope Lab hoping they might contain enough carbon and nitrogen to allow them to estimate stable isotope ratios.

"It's chemistry and is pretty complex," Scott explained. "But basically, since only protein has nitrogen, the more nitrogen that is present, the more animal products were consumed as part of the diet. Carbon provides information on the types of plants consumed."

Scott said that once at the lab, the material was crushed, and then a mass spectrometer was used to obtain stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios. …

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