Tooth analysis offers insight into South Australia’s early colonial history


New archaeological techniques have uncovered the origins of 13 early South Australian settlers buried in unmarked graves in the Anglican parish of St Mary’s Church in Adelaide.

Published today in Australian Archaeology, the new research involved isotopic analysis of teeth extracted from graves to determine how many of those buried were born in South Australia or Britain, as part of scientific efforts by University experts Flinders deploying this technique for the first time in the state. .

Archaeologists studied the origin of people in a section of open ground in the cemetery to help build a clear picture of colonial migration before 1880.

Lead author and Flinders University masters student Christine Adams says samples of tooth enamel and dentin from the graves show one person was likely born in Adelaide, eight were from Britain and Ireland, and three could have come from either place.

“Only one person was probably born elsewhere according to our results. A total of 52 samples were tested, four samples per individual – 26 for strontium, 26 for oxygen, and for enamel and dentin. Strontium isotope samples were successfully analyzed from enamel and dentin of all individuals,” she says.

“The finding that all individuals in this study may have, based on at least one isotope and dental material and supported by dietary data from the time, to be from Adelaide or the UK correlates well with the origin predominantly British settlers in South Australia and cemetery records prior to 1880.”

Flinders University co-author, Associate Professor Ian Moffat, said the study proves how isotope methods can be used to test the origin of case studies in Australia.

“This research technique is important for provenance studies where individuals might have migrated or moved large distances,” he says. “This study also shows that strontium isotope methods can be used to test a specific hypothesis rather than simply being used to confirm a general location.”

Co-author and leader of St Mary’s research project, Professor Donald Pate of Flinders University, said the analysis combined a range of isotopic surveys with a more in-depth analysis of diets from previous studies.

“As the life history of these individuals is not well documented in the historical record, the isotopic data provide important insights into migration and mobility in a colonial South Australian population,” says Professor Pate. .

“Our records and data suggest that the majority of individuals buried in the open ground section of St Mary’s were born in Britain or South Australia, but some may have migrated from other locations. Burial samples total 70 individuals at the cemetery, but degraded and missing dental features meant that not all were suitable for investigation.

Professor Pate is a veteran of studies on the site. At the request of the church, research began at St Mary’s Cemetery 20 years ago, with archaeologists painstakingly recovering the remains from the section of open ground since then.

Reference: Adams C, Owen TD, Pate FD, et al. “Don’t dead men tell stories? The geographic origin of a colonial period Anglican graveyard population in Adelaide, South Australia determined by isotopic analyses. August. Archeol. 2022;0(0):1-15. doi: 10.1080/03122417.2022.2086200

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