Life and death in an early South Australian colony

Information about the health of early migrants to South Australia was obtained through analysis such as micro-CT scanning of their teeth.

The village of St Maryโ€™s-on-the-Sturt was established in the late 1830s in the newly formed colony of South Australia, 6km south of Adelaide. Its initial population was made up largely of migrants from Britain who had been encouraged by the government to start a new life here, but recent research looking at the villageโ€™s cemetery reveals that the settlement did not get off to an easy start.

In 2000, excavations were carried out in the cemetery of St Maryโ€™s Anglican Church, in the โ€˜free groundโ€™ section allocated for burials paid for by the Government of South Australia. Parish records indicate that, for the first 30 years of the villageโ€™s existence, most of its occupants were interred in this area, as they could not afford the cost of their own burials. Recent analysis of this rare skeletal sample has shed new light on the conditions in which these early migrants lived.

above Information about the health of early migrants to South Australia was obtained through analysis such as micro-CT scanning of their teeth (shown here) and macroscopic
Information about the health of early migrants to South Australia was obtained through analysis such as micro-CT scanning of their teeth (shown here) and macroscopic examination of their bones. Image: ยฉ 2022 Gurr et al.

One of the most telling discoveries was the high infant mortality rate, with many children and young people dying from diseases connected to contaminated water supplies, such as dysentery, or bacterial infections like whooping cough. Many skeletons also show signs of vitamin deficiencies in life. Researchers compared the results from St Maryโ€™s to two contemporary cemeteries in Britain containing populations with similar backgrounds and found that Vitamin C deficiency was far more common among the population of St Maryโ€™s than among the British populations, probably because of a scarcity of fresh fruits and vegetables caused by delays in establishing food production in the early days of the South Australian colony. In contrast, however, the St Maryโ€™s population had much lower levels of Vitamin D deficiency than those buried in the British cemeteries, most likely due to the abundance of sunshine in South Australia.

The full results of this research have been published in PLOS ONE (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0265878) and the International Journal of Paleopathology (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpp.2022.04.002).