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Anglo-Saxon teeth could help identify modern health issues, study finds

Researchers from the University of Bradford analysing primary teeth from Anglo-Saxon children's skeletons have found these teeth to be a more reliable indicator of health and diet than bone. (Photograph: University of Bradford)

Thu. 13 September 2018

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BRADFORD, UK: Unlike bones, children’s teeth continue to grow during periods of undernourishment and record high nitrogen values, providing a kind of archive of diet and health. A new study analysing the primary teeth of Anglo-Saxon children has found them to be more reliable an indicator of the effects of diet and health than bone is, and could help identify modern children at highest risk of conditions such as obesity and heart disease.

For the study, researchers from the University of Bradford looked at children’s skeletons from a tenth century site in Northamptonshire in England. The skeletons came from a group that was known to have been undernourished, which limited the growth of their bones and thus limited the evidence able to be gathered from bone analysis alone.

By analysing dentine from the primary teeth of the skeletons, the research team was able to create a picture of the development of these children from the third trimester of pregnancy onwards. They were also able to look at children of different ages to see if those who survived the first 1,000 days from conception, a period during which factors such as height are determined, had different biomarkers for stress than those who died during this period.

“This is the first time that we have been able to measure with confidence the in utero nitrogen values of dentine,” said Dr Julia Beaumont, lecturer in biological anthropology at the University of Bradford’s School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences and co-author of the study.

“We find that when bone and teeth form at the same time, bone doesn’t record high nitrogen values that occur during stress. Our hypothesis is that bone isn’t growing but teeth are. So archaeology can’t rely on the evidence from bones alone because bone is not forming and recording during high stress and we can’t be sure, for example, of the age of a skeleton. Teeth are more reliable as they continue to grow even when a child is starving,” she continued.

“There is a growing consensus that factors such as low birth weight have a significant impact on our likelihood of developing conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity and that the first 1,000 days from conception onwards set our ‘template’. By analysing the milk teeth of modern children in the same way as the Anglo-Saxon skeletons, we can measure the same values and see the risk factors they are likely to face in later life, enabling measures to be taken to mitigate such risks,” Beaumont explained.

The study, titled “Comparing apples and oranges: Why infant bone collagen may not reflect dietary intake in the same way as dentine collagen”, was published on 6 September 2018 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology ahead of inclusion in an issue.

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