Root canal could reveal diet, environment of early Jamestown

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Endodontist Martin D. Levin (foreground) and Doug Owsley, head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (background), strategize how to approach their assessment of the fort boy's teeth in 2014. (Photo by Bruce Dale. Courtesy of Martin D. Levin)
Endodontist Martin D. Levin (foreground) and Doug Owsley, head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (background), strategize how to approach their assessment of the boy’s teeth in 2014. (Photo by Bruce Dale. Courtesy of Martin D. Levin)

Archaeologists at Jamestown Rediscovery know how a 15-year-old boy found at the edge of the settlement’s fort died—he was struck by an arrowhead two weeks after settlers arrived in the New World in 1607.

Now, thanks the curiosity of one Maryland endodontist, a team of scientists across the country are learning how this boy lived by examining one nasty root canal and everything packed inside.

“That tooth became a date recorder for what he had been eating,” said Michael Lavin, senior conservator at Jamestown Rediscovery. “This is really an opportunity for us to put a name or face to the past.”

It all started when Dr. Martin D. Levin, an endodontist and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, visited “Written in Bone,” a forensic archaeology exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History that featured the skeletal remains of Jamestown settlers. He noticed a lesion on the boy’s mandible, or lower jaw, that intrigued him.

“When I saw that I thought there might be more to the story if I could simply evaluate the skull and teeth,” Levin said.

He reached out to Doug Owsley, the museum’s head of physical anthropology, and the two examined the skull at his office in 2014, shortly after the exhibit closed to the public.

After performing 2D radiographs of the mandible and teeth—a procedure regularly completed by dentists—he determined the boy was eight years old when he suffered dental trauma.

“It’s very obvious…that the tooth did not mature after the trauma,” Levin said. “I could see this tooth was wide open and immature.”

It’s unlikely that the boy was treated for his injury, Levin said. Until the tissue in the tooth’s nerve died, the boy probably experienced extraordinary pain for weeks or even months.

The mandible, or lower jaw, shows extensive damage caused by a chronic abscess due to dental trauma that resulted in fractured front teeth. (Photo by Bruce Dale. Courtesy of Martin D. Levin)
The mandible, or lower jaw, shows extensive damage caused by a chronic abscess due to dental trauma that resulted in fractured front teeth. (Photo by Bruce Dale. Courtesy of Martin D. Levin)

“There was a period of time when he was eight years old that he was miserable,” Levin said.

The next step was to characterize the material that could be found inside the tooth’s root canal. For this he teamed up with researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Engineering.

“Everything he ate would have to be packed in that root canal,” Levin said. “Once we determined that it could be a reservoir for everything that he ate, we could then remove the contents in a clean room under a microscope and start to look at it in ways that would help us to understand what food he might have been eating.”

Levin and the VCU team found only one cavity in the boy’s mouth, which is consistent with a low sugar diet more common among the poor. If he had the same access to refined sugars as the wealthy, he would have had more cavities.

His teeth were also worn down, a condition commonly found in early settlers who ate grains refined by gristmills, Levin said. Those refined grains, which included oat, wheat and barley, often contained stone particles that wore away at a tooth’s enamel.

However, it was the microscopic analysis of the material in the root canal that is beginning to reveal more about what the boy consumed in the New World.

Preliminary findings from the analysis, which was completed by Linda Scott Cummings, a Colorado-based paleobotanist, show the root canal contained pollen grains, cereal grains and some food starches.

“Pollen grains will tell us something about his diet and perhaps the area he was in because we can determine what was in the air,” Levin said.

Martin D. Levin (left), Doug Owsley (right) and Barry Pass (background), a professor of oral diagnostics at Howard University, examine a 3D scan of the fort boy’s mandible (mounted in the foreground) in 2014. (Photo by Bruce Dale. Courtesy of Martin D. Levin)
Martin D. Levin, an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania (left), Doug Owsley, a physical anthropologist and division head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (right) and Barry Pass, a professor at Howard University (background), examine a 3D scan of the boy’s mandible (mounted in the foreground) in 2014. (Photo by Bruce Dale. Courtesy of Martin D. Levin)

For the archaeologists at Jamestown Rediscovery, studying the “date recorder” inside the mouth of the boy has expanded the possibilities of what they can learn about the first settlers and how they experienced the New World.

Lavin said the discoveries motivate Jamestown’s First Settlers project, an effort that will bring together local dentists and paleobotanists to further study the bones recovered at Jamestown.

“Are we losing any information from what we aren’t doing?” Lavin said, emphasizing that best practices need to be established to ensure archaeologists can obtain “any possible information…as to who these people are.”

Levin said there is more to discover through microscopic and DNA analysis. The scientists will present abstracts and Levin said the research is generating a lot of interest, especially because the findings are coming from one root canal.

“Everyone has contributed beautifully to this and a lot of people are interested in this in the scientific community,” Levin said.

He added that the significance of this work extends beyond Jamestown and this boy.

“The story belongs to America and the people of this country, and that’s the big responsibility,” he said.

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