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Wanted: Possum teeth

Media Release
12 December, 2008

Wanted: Possum teeth

Listen up farmers, hunters, trappers and bush whackers, does Waikato University have a challenge for you. Student Nicky Cameron needs possum teeth. Seriously. She needs to test the enamel on possum teeth because it may be the key to identifying the places of origin of archaeological human remains. Seriously.

“The enamel on our teeth, and animal’s teeth is laid down for the first few years of life, after which the enamel stays mostly unchanged,” says Cameron, a chemistry student who’s won Te Tipu Putaiao scholarship to carry out the research for her Master of Science degree. “It used to be that people lived all their lives in the one area and ate only local food – as possums do now – and the minerals in their tooth enamel reflected what they ate and therefore where they lived.”

Cameron hopes that by testing the possum’s teeth, noting the mineral composition in their tooth enamel and making mineral comparisons with geological data from the area, she will be able to find a strong correlation between the composition of the tooth enamel and the geographical origin of the possum. If this proves to be correct then it would be possible to extend the study to human remains dating from periods when people lived most of their lives in one locality and ate local food. The premise would only be true for historical remains as modern people eat food sourced from all over the world

Merilyn Manley-Harris, chair of the University’s Chemistry Department and Cameron’s co-supervisor says she doesn’t know if the hypothesis will stand up but she’s confident enough to give it a good try. And to do that they need possums.

“We want people to lop off the bottom jaw of any possum they kill or if they locate skeletal remains in the bush and send them to us. It’d be preferable to have just the skeletal remains but if they still have their flesh on, they’d need to be hermetically sealed for posting. We’ll also need a map reference or detailed description of where each possum was found or killed.”

Manley-Harris says there are plenty of possums around, they’re a pest, so she’s hopeful of getting plenty to work with.

The project is a collaboration between the university’s Chemistry Department and the School of Maori and Pacific Development (SMPD). Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku from SMPD is Cameron’s other supervisor and she says the research could be of value to the Maori community. “There are many items of a sensitive nature being returned from overseas museums. This project may help in locating them to particular areas, and therefore iwi. This is what makes this research really important and exciting - and new!"

You may send your possum jaws to:

Nicky Cameron
C/O Merilyn Manley-Harris
Chemistry Department
University of Waikato
Private Bag 3105


© Scoop Media

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