Teeth can reveal a lot of intriguing data about the people they belonged to, even teeth from over 500 years ago. Now that lab facilities at Trent University Durham GTA have safely re-opened, student and faculty researchers are examining ancient dental samples from the Ka'Kabish Archaeological Research Project (KARP) in close detail, excited to discover more about things like diet—even social and political status.
The Ka'Kabish Archaeological Research Project (KARP) provides Trent students with the opportunity to excavate an ancient Maya ruin in the Belize rain forest and analyze artifacts in the lab back on campus.
“What we learn through this study will help us fill out the other details about life at Ka’Kabish,” states Dr. Helen R. Haines, associate professor of Anthropology at Trent Durham, and KARP director.
“I’m pretty confident now in tooth identification,” says Devon Howell, an incoming M.A. Anthropology student who meticulously analysed 509 teeth. “It’s a skill set that takes a while to develop.”
The team is also studying factors including decay and accumulated calculus (fossilised plaque) which can indicate overall dental health and the types of foods and plants eaten.
“By knowing these plants, we can learn about agricultural practices,” explains Professor Haines. “I hope to share with the local populations to improve the current land management conditions.”
The research also examines intentional modifications to the teeth, possibly providing clues to social or political affiliation, or life milestones such as marriage.
The dental analysis being conducted at Trent Durham will contribute to previous work conducted at the KARP site, including dietary and health research by former M.A. Anthropology student, Grant Smith. It will also add to findings in areas such as consumption patterns, status, pathologies, migration patterns and genetic illness.
“It is a big team effort,” states Dr. Jennifer Newton, assistant professor of Anthropology who brought passion for dental anthropology and bioarchaeological expertise to the project. “It gives us a better picture of what was happening.”
After more research, the team is hoping to officially share their work. Prof. Haines is hopeful that excavation work can resume at the site in Belize next year.
Back in the lab
To ensure a safe re-entry to Trent Durham facilities, staff and faculty followed strict protocols for space, logistics, sanitation, and research.
“Now that we’re able to open the lab, and get back to work, it has given us a chance to focus on the analysis of the material,” observes Prof. Haines.
As for being back in the lab, Prof. Haines is enthused—“It feels amazing!”