Health effects of European colonization: An investigation of skeletal remains from 19th to early 20th century migrant settlers in South Australia

Angela Gurr, Jaliya Kumaratilake, Alan Henry Brook, Stella Ioannou, F. Donald Pate, Maciej Henneberg

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The British colony of South Australia, established in 1836, offered a fresh start to migrants hoping for a better life. A cohort of settlers buried in a section of St Mary’s Anglican Church Cemetery (1847–1927) allocated for government funded burials was investigated to determine their health, with a focus on skeletal manifestations associated with metabolic deficiencies. Findings of St Mary’s sample were compared with those published for contemporary skeletal samples from two British cemeteries, St Martin’s, Birmingham, and St Peter’s, Wolverhampton, to explore similarities and differences. To investigate the changing economic background of the St Mary’s cohort, which may have influenced the location of their burial within the cemetery, the number and demographic profile of government funded burials and those in privately funded leased plots were compared. The study sample consisted of the skeletal remains of 65 individuals (20 adults, 45 subadults) from St Mary’s Cemetery ‘free ground’ section. The bones and teeth of individuals in this cohort showed evidence of pathological manifestations, including areas of abnormal porosity in bone cortices in 9 adults and 12 subadults and flaring of metaphyses (one subadult) and costochondral junctions of the ribs (one subadult). Porous lesions of orbital roof bones (Types 3 to 4) were seen on three subadults. Macroscopic examination of teeth identified enamel hypoplastic defects and micro-CT scans showed areas of interglobular dentine. Comparison of St Mary’s findings with the British samples revealed that prevalences of manifestations associated with vitamin C deficiency were higher at St Mary’s and manifestations associated with vitamin D deficiency were lower respectively. The location of burial pattern at St Mary’s Cemetery, from the mid-1840s to1860s, showed differences in the economic status of migrants. This pattern changed from the 1870s, which reflected improvements in the local economy and the economic recovery of the colony.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0265878
Number of pages28
JournalPLoS One
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 6 Apr 2022


  • Colonization
  • South Australia
  • Population health
  • Skeletal remains


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