While we may brush and floss tirelessly and our dentists may regularly scrape and pick at our teeth to minimize the formation of plaque known as tartar or dental calculus, anthropologists may be rejoicing at the fact that past civilizations were not so careful with their dental hygiene.
University of Nevada, Reno researchers G. Richard Scott and Simon R. Poulson discovered that very small particles of plaque removed from the teeth of ancient populations may provide good clues about their diets. Scott is chair and associate professor of anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts. Poulson is research professor of geological sciences in the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering.
Scott obtained samples of dental calculus from 58 skeletons buried in the Cathedral of Santa Maria in northern Spain dating from the 11th to 19th centuries to conduct research on the diet of this ancient population. After his first methodology met with mixed results, he decided to send five samples of dental calculus to Poulson at the University's Stable Isotope Lab, in the off chance they might contain enough carbon and nitrogen to allow them to estimate stable isotope ratios.