M.A. student Andrew Kramer and the tales that teeth tell!

My name is Andrew Kramer and I am an M.A. student in the Anthropology Department. My passion is Ohio archaeology and more specifically, paleodietary reconstruction. So how do we reconstruct the diet of someone who died 1,500 years ago you ask? Easy! Your teeth give researchers a wealth of information about diet, nutrition and cultural practices. My research looks at the microscopic food particles caught in the matrix of dental calculus. No, this is not some fancy form of math made only for teeth- it is a deposition of calcified bacteria and food particles that accumulates on your teeth over time without proper dental cleaning.

I spent my summer (2015) determining how to dissolve dental calculus with hydrochloric acid (HCl) without destroying the more delicate elements of diet such as pollen and plant fibers. After many failures and some success I have come up with a way to dissolve calculus and unlock the dietary elements without destroying any particular class or element. My goal is to now take my method and apply it to the dental calculus taken from burials that were found in an indigenous (ancient) fishing village from Northwestern Ohio. With some luck and perhaps some magical pixie dust I will be able to reconstruct the diet of the people who lived in this village over 1,000 years ago.


The above images show a corn silk fiber and a dyed red cotton fiber that were found in dental calculus (scale bars = 25 micrometers).

The next step is to take the dietary pathologies already documented in the remains from the village by Robert Mensforth, PhD and determine what elements within their diet (or lack thereof) caused the various pathologies noted like vitamin-deficient rickets (and perhaps some new pathologies as well). The benefit of this research is that we will finally be able to bridge the gap between what is considered “traditional foods” among modern day indigenous people and what was actually eaten over 1,000 years ago. By reconstructing the diet via dental calculus microscopy we can determine what foods or plant materials may have been used for nourishment, medicine, or within a ritual context.

I for one am extremely excited to see how dental calculus microscopy can further our understanding of how ancient people from Ohio utilized the landscape and to see what quality of health that landscape offered to the indigenous people. Be sure to check back and see all the exciting dietary elements I find within the teeth of these ancient folks (and notice the bug that I found in a dental calculus in the picture below!! Scale bar = 25 micrometers). Teeth tell tales about us long after we have ceased to breathe.