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Professor gives students something to chew on

Posted on 11.06.2013

University of Indianapolis Professor Christopher Schmidt, director of the Indiana Prehistory Laboratory presented his seminar, “Ancient Teeth and Modern Diets” to a classroom of students and faculty on Oct. 23 at 3 p.m. According to Schmidt, he was invited by Associate Professor of Biology Mary Ritke to give the presentation to her students.

“You can learn so much from teeth. You can learn about ancient history, or you can work on a case that’s just a few weeks old, and they really tell you a lot,” Schmidt said. “I talked about my work with human teeth to understand diet. We look at a lot of different things like how teeth wear down or diseases.”

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 played a large role in the most recent work Schmidt has done working with the teeth of the Herculaneum people destroyed by the volcano. Schmidt analyzes these molds, studying the micro and macro wear that takes place on the human tooth. This is part of a project called the “dental wear project.” This project has worked with about a thousand different people, including people from well-known archeology sites such as Gobero and Stonehenge.

“I use archeology to study certain aspects of biology. I study things that were alive a long time ago, but I study them the same way you study something today,” Schmidt said. “I’m not trying to help the people of Stonehenge or Herculaneum. They had their time. What I’m doing now is taking the lessons of life from people who have come before and applying them to questions, concerns and issues from today.”

The presentation lasted about an hour, and close to 50 people were in attendance. According to Schmidt, this turnout was much higher than he anticipated.

“It was an audience that seemed interested … It’s fun to share and hear comments from people. It makes you think about things you hadn’t thought of before, and I think that’s one of the best things about an intellectual environment—you get to hear other people’s ideas, and those ideas might stimulate new ideas.”

Senior exercise science major Kevin Bachek attended the event to get LP credit and extra credit for a class. He found the seminar engaging and said he would have liked to hear more about the topic.

“One of the most interesting things that I learned was that the food we eat can leave marks and scratches on our teeth,” Bachek said. “It’s pretty crazy that we can identify what a population’s diet was just by studying the marks on their teeth.”

Schmidt hopes the students learned that bioarcheology can address important current issues such as what to eat. Personally, Schmidt has applied his research to his own diet and seen results.

“I don’t want to demonize cereal grains. I don’t eat them a lot anymore, and I’ve lost 30 pounds. A little bit of exercise and less carbohydrates made a huge difference. I eat a lot more nuts and seeds and have taken on a diet more akin to people who lived a long time ago,” Schmidt said. “I wasn’t setting out to do that; it wasn’t intentional. I just thought, ‘Oh, I’ll try it,’ and it’s actually been hugely advantageous so far.”

According to Schmidt, another important application of the research he is doing is increasing the knowledge of what farmers should grow.

“Agricultural diets are great at feeding lots and lots of people. We could not return to a foraging way of life; there are not enough resources. But what we can do is farm foods that are more like the foods that people ate before,” Schmidt said. “Instead of growing corn, we could grow things like quinoa. And people do grow that. It’s just expensive because few people grow it.”

Future research will take Schmidt even further back in time. Most of the people he has studied are farmers or early farmers. Down the road, he hopes to study what people were eating before farmers existed on the planet.


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