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Lumen Winter 2015 Issue
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Revealing a skeleton's history by cleaning its teeth

PhD candidate Andrew Farrer

PhD candidate Andrew Farrer
Scholarship recipient Andrew Farrer shows his appreciation for the scholarship he has received.

Dear Mrs. Denholm,

My name is Andrew Farrer and I am writing to you as the 2014 recipient of the L.F. and D. Denholm scholarship. I wanted to thank you for your generous donation to the University in memory of your late husband, and to explain my research project and how the funds are supporting my studies.

I clean the teeth of skeletons, uncovering new insights into personal and human histories. Using the preserved DNA from microorganisms that lived in the mouths of our ancestors, I reveal information about that person’s life history. The specific pattern of bacteria present reveals previously unknown information about that individual’s environment and lifestyle. This research is a unique way of learning about people’s lives.

At the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, I use dental calculus (a hardened form of dental plaque) from archaeological specimens to retrieve this microbial information. Calculus forms from the bacterial layers that grow on our teeth, and provides one of the only sources of ancient DNA representing the human bacterial community. The methods to recover such DNA have only become available in recent years, meaning my work and the University are on the leading edge of this research.

Specifically, my research looks for patterns within the bacterial community that differ between people of different classes, professions, and religions. I will also be exploring how these differences are maintained or change through time. As a result, I hope to be able to understand the impacts of all kinds of cultural changes, such as wars, epidemics, and trade, exploring an unknown layer of human history for the first time. Insights will include information on the diets, diseases and migration of the people of past societies. The groundwork will also be laid for using ancient, bacterial DNA as an archaeological tool while providing information related to modern medical research of the bacterial community.

The funds you have generously provided will help support a visit to the Museum of London, UK to obtain samples from over 150 medieval and post-medieval (late 1100s to the late 1800s) individuals. The museum has one of the world’s most extensive collections of human remains from a single city, each with detailed information from a large range of previous archaeological analyses. Consequently, the Museum of London’s collection removes the impacts of geography on the bacterial community while allowing detailed exploration of cultural influences within the city across a large period.

I hope this letter finds you well and thank you again for your support.

Yours sincerely,
Andrew G. Farrer

In 2015 over 100 students like Andrew are being supported by philanthropic scholarships. To support students like Andrew visit


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