Milk teeth of Irish famine's youngest victims reveal secrets of malnutrition

Analysis of baby skeletons could help predict medical problems among contemporary children

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An Irish famine memorial in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Tiny teeth of babies who died in the Irish famine in the 1840s, or soon afterwards when their parents moved to London in search of work, reveal they were the starving children of malnourished mothers – but the analysis may also help predict medical problems among contemporary children.

The remains, from a graveyard in Lukin Street, which in the 19th century was a slum area of Whitechapel in east London, and from the site of a workhouse in County Kilkenny in Ireland, showed the dead babies had higher nitrogen levels than found in the bones of children who survived infancy. 

The levels fluctuated wildly among the dead babies, while they were comparatively stable among those who lived into childhood or adolescence. The findings overturn the previous belief that high nitrogen levels are generally an indicator of good nourishment – including a diet rich in fish among the Londoners.

The point about these babies is that they died,” Julia Beaumont, of the Bradford University department of archaeological sciences, said. “Something else is obviously going on here.”

Beaumont, who was a dentist before she retrained as an archaeologist, believes the nitrogen levels are actually an indicator that their mothers were starving, literally using up their own bodies in an effort to keep producing milk to feed their infants.

Babies born to and breastfed by malnourished mothers do not receive all the nutrients they need, and this is possibly why these babies didn’t survive,” she said.

Since severe malnutrition in infancy can have lifelong health implications, including heart disease, Beaumont believes analysis of the naturally shed milk teeth of living children could provide valuable pointers towards future health problems. 

Her research, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, also looks at teeth from Anglo Saxon and Bronze Age burials – where she has discovered the same pattern – and teeth from children born recently in Bradford and Sudan.

The Lukin Street cemetery, used from 1843-54, was excavated by the Museum of London 10 years ago. Many of the coffin nameplates were Irish, and it was attached to a mission church with an Irish-speaking priest.

The point about these babies is that they died. Something else is obviously going on here

Julia Beaumont, archaeologist

The famine of 1845-49, which led to the failure of the potato crop, the main food source of the Irish poor, is estimated to have caused up to a million deaths from hunger and disease. A further 2 million people emigrated.

The Kilkenny cemetery was found by chance a few years earlier, when the site of an old workhouse was being redeveloped as a shops and apartments complex in the heyday of the “Celtic tiger” economy. 

Records of a burial ground – opened because the nearest cemetery was full and dozens of people were dying every week in the workhouse – were traced after the first skeletons were discovered. Eventually the remains of more than 800 individuals were recovered, the largest mass grave found from the period, and have since been reburied in a memorial garden.

Beaumont became involved when at a conference she met Jonny Geber, a bones specialist who was working on the Kilkenny site, and they discovered they were both working on Irish skeletons from the same famine period. 

Even while being fed within the supposed shelter of the workhouse, people continued to die in huge numbers, probably of fever. The scientists also found many suffered from scurvy, because the imported maize they were fed did not provide the vitamins previously obtained from potatoes and milk: many early 19th-century travellers had commented on how healthy the Irish peasant farmers seemed on their restricted diet, compared with England’s industrial poor.

It is a desperately sad story,” Beaumont said, “but how wonderful if these deaths could lead to intervention and hope for children today. I’ve been appealing to people to send me baby teeth – in Bradford they call me the tooth fairy.”