Britons Teeth
Researchers analysed Ancient Britons' teeth to look for clues as to where they had grown up. Credit: Mandy Jay.

Ancient Britons Were ‘Highly Mobile’ 4,000 Years Ago

Researchers can test tooth fragments by using an oxygen isotope analysis of tooth enamel. This makes information available of where an individual lived when the tooth formed. Oxygen occurs naturally in the environment and is absorbed by plants and animals. It is fixed in the mineral part of mammalian teeth and its isotopic configuration is related to the environment in which the person spent his or her childhood.  In a recent article published in the journal Scientific Reports, a research team described how they were able to map the oxygen isotopic variability in the landscape of Britain and Ireland geographically. The map is based on the theory that prehistoric people would have sourced food and water locally. The results of this study provides a guide to where the individuals sampled had lived as children.

A new database created from the teeth of prehistoric humans found at ancient burial sites in Ireland and Britain has been compiled by archaeologists. The database tells us a lot about the diet, climate and even how far the individuals may have traveled. Dr Maura Pellegrini from the University of Oxford was the lead of the study and explained that they have concluded that individuals that lived in prehistoric Britain were highly mobile.

According to the paper, most of the teeth in the collection date back to Early Bronze Age and Chalcolithic periods (from 2500 to 1500 BC). The analysis suggests that people were not only moving around their own country, but may also have traveled to and from continental Europe.

An analysis of the teeth of those buried in the hills of the Yorkshire Wolds (in North Yorkshire and East Riding) Stonehenge region and the Peak District show that many did not grow up in the area of their final resting place. They were in fact drawn from everywhere, often to focal points containing holy monuments. The inconsistency in the isotope values was particularly noticeable in individuals recovered from Bee Low, a Bronze Age round cairn in the Peak District; Garton Slack in Yorkshire, where there is a complex range of barrow types and burial practices; and Woodhenge, a timber circle located near Stonehenge.

Researchers focused on the central part of the tooth crown when testing tooth enamel remains from 261 individual teeth. The teeth sampled from these individuals mineralized from the age of two years up to eight years old. This provided the clues to the environmental conditions of the location where they grew up, including the water they drank. Comparing their values with the ‘isoscape’ information gleaned from most of the other samples in each area, enabled the team to calculate the possibility that people were outsiders coming into the area later in life until they eventually died there. It was assumed that the other samples in each area represented ‘local’ individuals. Thus, the researchers identified those who had lived in other areas as children by matching individuals’ signatures in the teeth with areas where the majority, or ‘local’ people, were found.

Pellegrini, a visiting Fellow at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at the University of Oxford, and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Bradford, noted that the isotopic values in the teeth sampled in individuals found at the Yorkshire Wolds, Stonehenge and Bee Low were amazingly varied. One would expect this level of diversity in medieval cities and ports. As the isotopic signatures in Ireland and Britain are similar to those found in Europe, it is unclear whether the individuals only traveled within the UK, or whether they also came to and from continental Europe.

  • John Karamazov

    It makes sense that people who ended up getting buried in special places wouldn’t have been the ‘norm’, so I’m suspicious of how much this actually tells us about everyday Neolithic Brits.

  • peterjohn936

    They forget to account for the long distance traders. The traders traded bronze tools and weapons, wine, olive oil, jewelry, fine cloth, perfume, medicine, and other luxury goods for slaves, pelts, amber, gold dust, grain, cows, dried meats, etc. The traders are always there and the more remote and backwards a region is the greater the profit.

  • People tend to give ancient peoples a lot less credit than they deserve for travel and technology.