A single tooth can tell a lot about the Late Woodland peoples

Brad Lepper

Source - http://apps.ohiohistory.org/ohioarchaeology/reading-the-stories-of-ancient-lives-written-in-teeth/

The poet William Blake suggested that one might “see a World in a Grain of Sand.” University of Toronto bioarchaeologist Susan Pfeiffer and an international team of scientists have come close to doing just that. They are gleaning insights into the world of the Late Woodland peoples of the lower Great Lakes from something not much bigger than a grain of sand – fragments of individual teeth. In my column in the Columbus Dispatch, I review the results of their study, which was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Village and tooth

The Late Woodland period in the Great Lakes was a time of rapid cultural change characterized by sedentary villages, often protected by a palisade. This painting is from a display at the Fort Ancient Museum. Image of tooth from Wikimedia Commons.

Pfeiffer and her team extracted mitochondrial DNAfrom each tooth to determine the biological relationships between the people living at the various sites. In addition, they looked at the relative amounts of isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in the teeth for clues to changing diets over time. Even after undertaking these analyses, they noted that there was still enough tissue remaining from the teeth to do additional studies of other chemicals, such as strontium and oxygen, which can reveal whether people grew up in the local environment or originally lived elsewhere before moving to the village at which they ultimately were buried.

Pfeiffer and her co-authors acknowledge that the scientific study of American Indian human remains often has resulted in conflict between archaeologists and American Indians. Given what can be learned from these studies, however, they argue that “it is important that field archaeologists pursue permission for some level of study, including the retention of tissue samples.”

Pfeiffer and her team note that “among First Nations descendant communities, interest in ancestral populations is growing” and “permission to study the remains of archaeologically discovered ancestors is often granted.” They argue that preserving something even as small as a single tooth would allow scientists the opportunity to continue to learn the stories hidden within the ancient bones: “Insofar as modern teeth are removed as part of dental treatment and tooth loss is seen as a typical life experience, teeth are rarely seen as being imbued with spiritual power, so that this approach is acceptable to many descendants.”


Map showing the distribution of First Nations populations of the Great Lakes, prior to disruptions associated with European contact. Labels in CAPS indicate broader language groups of the region. Figure 1 in the paper by Pfeiffer et al. (2014)

Pfeiffer and her colleagues recognize that stronger relationships between researchers and native communities “are crucial if we are to collectively learn about the past.” Eske Willerslev, the geneticist who led the team that recovered the Anzick child’s genome, expressed a similar view at the press conference announcing those results: “I realized that if scientists and Native Americans want to pursue their past together, there needs to be compromises from both sides.”

The work of Willerslev, Pfeiffer and their colleagues along with the views of American Indians such as Shane Doyleand Ben Barnes offer hope that such compromises are possible.

If you’re interested in reading the paper by Pfeiffer and her colleagues, it’s available online as an open-access article: “Stable dietary isotopes and mtDNA from Woodland period southern Ontario people: results from a tooth sampling protocol.”