Skeletal remains reveal grave health of Australian pioneer settlers

The micro-CT scan shows internal defects in one of the teeth found at St Mary’s Cemetery. Credit: Flinders University

In one of the first studies of its kind, Australian scientists investigated the health and economic status of a group of settlers migrating to colonial South Australia from an examination of skeletal remains from the Anglican parish from St Mary’s in Adelaide.

The new research, published in a reputable international publication PLOS ONE today is the only bioarchaeological study examining evidence of changes in the teeth and bones of European settlers in the St Mary’s-on-the-Sturt (Creek) area to gain new insights into the health and conditions of life they faced in the new colony.

At the parish’s request, the long-running search began at St Mary’s Cemetery 20 years ago when archaeologists from Flinders University excavated a rear section of the cemetery which lacked landmarks.

Based on follow-up studies by Flinders, the University of Adelaide and international experts in bioanthropology, anatomy and dental development have now applied anatomical and micro-CT techniques to this unique archaeological specimen.

“The non-custodial British colony of South Australia, established in 1836, offered migrants new hope for a better life than they could have had in Britain,” says the University of Adelaide , Ph.D. candidate and lead author Angela Gurr, graduate in archeology from Flinders University.

Grave health of Australian pioneer settlers

A micro-CT scan shows an external defect in a section of a tooth. Credit: Adelaide Microscopy

“This cohort of early settlers buried in a section of St Mary’s Anglican Church graveyard between 1847 and 1927 was assigned to government-funded burials and was extremely interesting to study for abnormal manifestations associated with metabolic deficiencies.”

The results indicate that most of these abnormalities were the result of a deficient diet in the new colony. The abnormal signs observed in the bones were associated with deficiencies in vitamins C and D and iron.

In comparison with similar published data from two other 19th century British cemeteries – St Martin’s in Birmingham and St Peter’s in Wolverhampton – the prevalence of vitamin C deficiency in the St Mary sample was higher, and that of Vitamin D deficiency was less, indicating the prevalence of sunlight in South Australia.

The study showed that many of the changes occurred during the second half of individuals’ lives. The changes identified in the teeth, particularly the developmental defects, indicated that health stresses were experienced by some people during the fetus and the first 25 years of postnatal life.

The location of burials at St Mary’s Cemetery from the mid-1840s to the 1860s showed differences in the economic status of migrants.

Grave health of Australian pioneer settlers

Dental micro-scans taken as part of the doctoral investigation at Adelaide Microscopy. Credit: Flinders University

A decrease in the number of interments in the “open ground” area of ​​the cemetery from the 1870s reflects improvements in the local economy and the subsequent economic recovery of the settlement.

Lead author and team leader Professor Emeritus Maciej Henneberg says the findings highlight the new colony’s unpreparedness for early migrants to settle and the effects of living conditions on newcomers.

The rare skeletal sample from the free floor of St Mary’s Anglican Church generates an opportunity to understand the effects of the establishment of the new colony on the health of these migrant settlers, says co-author Professor Donald Pate of Flinders, who participated in the St Mary’s archaeological excavations.

“This body of work expands understanding of the effects of early industrial colonization on the health of migrants.”

Conditions improved between the 1870s and 1920s when the number of burials declined, suggesting a gradual improvement in the economic status of migrants – a trend that was mirrored in the rest of the colony, researchers say.

The article, “Health Effects of European Settlement: An Investigation of the Skeletal Remains of 19th to Early 20th Century Migrant Settlers in South Australia,” was published in PLOS ONE.

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More information:
Angela Gurr et al, Health effects of European colonization: an investigation of the skeletal remains of 19th to early 20th century migrant settlers in South Australia, PLOS ONE (2022). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0265878

Provided by Flinders University

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