Old Bones Tell the Tales and Reveal the Diets of 18th-Century Sailors

By Sarah Zhang | March 27, 2012 8:39 am

You are what you eat—that’s true even after your bones have spent 200 years buried in the dirt. A new study using old bones from 18th century British sailors confirmed the naval diet: lots of biscuits, more protein than the average landlubber, and the same damn things sailors ate for the previous 200 years.

The Victualing Board actually kept meticulous records of a sailor’s official rations: 1 lb of bread and 1 gallon of beer per day (!), plus 1 lb of pork twice a week, 2 lbs of beef twice a week, or butter and cheese the other three days. But when the going got tough out in the middle of watery nowhere, did sailors actually get their rations? Yes, it seems, based on an analysis of nitrogen isotopes extracted from the bones of 80 sailors. The elevated levels of nitrogen suggested that sailors did get as much beef and pork as the Victualing Board recorded. And despite being at sea, they didn’t seem to eat much fish.

Carbon isotopes also provided a striking record of an individual sailor’s journey. Some of the sailors’ bones had levels of carbon-13 indicating they ate plants that made sugars through a pathway called C4, and these plants such as maize and sugar cane are not found in northern Europe. The researchers also compared carbon isotopes from teeth, which are fixed in childhood, and bones, which change through your lifetime. High variability in carbon isotopes among sailors’ teeth suggested they came from all over the British Empire before they became sailors.

Comparing the bones of these 18th century sailors with bones excavated from the Mary Rose that shipwrecked in 1545, the researchers determined the diets of seamen likely did not change much in the two intervening centuries. For a major dietary change, the sailors would have to wait several decades for the invention of canned food.

[via History.com]

Image via Wikimedia Commons / Charny

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Geoffrey.Frasz

    The resistance to eating fish by sailors is a reflection of land diet habits. It also showed up in the collapse of the settlements in Greenland because of the reliance on cattle and also in the near starvation of Lewis and Clark’s men when they wintered on the Pacific coast and venison meat was scarce, and the ignored plenty of fish in the ocean and the Columbia River

  • Georg

    Fishing was a coastal business then, not a basis
    to feed men on the overburdened “sea prisons”.

    18th century navies did not make far distance voyages
    in a single run, if any! So there was always chance
    to replenish food.
    Canning did not change much to the food for sailors
    in 19th century, just the beef and pork lasted longer.
    This made possible the long distance journeys of the famous
    clipper area, think of tea race or wheat races.
    And during this long distance journeys of the 19th
    and early 20th century they had more ill/dead sailors from scurvy
    (lacking fresh fruit/vegetables) than they had in the
    centuries before.

  • Angelica Buono

    Sugar cane was not found only in the new world during the 18th century; it is an old world domesticate native to South Asia.

  • Sarah Zhang

    @Angelica Buono — thanks for pointing out the error! It’s been corrected.

  • juan

    The biggest mystery is how those sailors could survive after months of scurvy. It is obvious that many died of scurvy, but about survivors? Why did they survive? If diets were the same for everyone and basically devoid of C vitamin how comes that some survived and others didn’t?

  • Michael

    Sauerkraut is rich in vitamin C and was often carried by ships because it would last well beyond the spoiling of fresh fruits and vegtables It was given to those that chose to eat it however, many not liking the taste often died from lack of vitamin C or scurvy. Those that ate the foul tasting vegtable were much more likely to survive than those that didn’t eat it.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar