The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

The Great Irish Famine: producing “lifeways” for victims and survivors using isotope ratios and elemental concentrations


1Division of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Sciences, University of Bradford, 2School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen’s University Belfast, 3Human Osteology, Museum of London Archaeology, 4Department of Archaeology, University of Oxford, 5Department of Archaeology, Durham University

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During the Great Irish Famine (1845-1852) millions of rural Irish poor left their homes, arriving in Britain as a stepping stone to other destinations or settling in major towns and cities:108,000 settled in London during this period. Reconstructed diets can be used to determine status and origin (Trickett 2007, Muldner et al 2009). Based on documentary evidence which suggests differences in food consumption ( Crawford and Clarkson 2003) and environmental exposure to heavy metals (Drummond and Wilbraham, 1939), this research examines whether there is a difference in isotopes and element concentrations between indigenous Londoners, first generation Irish migrants in Lukin Street, and those they left behind in the Kilkenny Workhouse.

Using bone, tooth and hair from individuals from the Cemetery of the Catholic Mission of St Mary and St Michael, Whitechapel (1843-1854), and the Famine Cemetery at the Kilkenny Union Workhouse (1847-1851), analyses of isotope ratios and elemental concentrations have been carried out to compare the two populations and reconstruct “lifeways” for some individuals. Results show these analyses can be used to discriminate between Londoners, first generation Irish, and other migrants.

Analysis of carbon and nitrogen isotopes using dentine sections reveals dramatic changes in diet during the development of the teeth with high temporal resolution. These results challenge some of the accepted interpretations of skeletal and dental manifestations of diet and the link between changes in nitrogen isotope ratios and physiology.

This study was funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council Studentship AH/I503307/1

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