Hair testing reveals hardships of life in gold rush-era Perth

07 June 2022

The same hair testing technology used to detect drug abuse in athletes has given researchers a glimpse back in time at the health of some of Perth’s earliest residents who walked our City’s streets around 140 years ago.

As part of an operation to relocate more than 100 graves from the old East Perth Cemeteries in 2020, The University of Notre Dame archaeology graduate Lauren Jolliffe was able to collect viable hair samples from 17 gravesites. The graves contained the remains of members of the Chinese and Presbyterian communities who died between 1881 and 1899.

Despite the age and fragility of the hair, the chemical composition of each sample was able to be analysed using a state-of-the-art mass spectrometer.

Ms Jolliffe said she believed it was the first time the process had been used in WA to examine archaeological samples, providing the first scientific evidence of the how the hardships of colonial life impacted on the health of the population.

Most significantly, the tests revealed that nearly all had extremely low zinc levels, which was a clear sign that their immune systems would have been severely compromised.

“The old saying that ‘you are what you eat’ is very true when it comes to our hair,” Ms Jolliffe said. “It keeps a lasting record of what we’ve ingested, providing us with insights into our overall health, as well as clues about our diets, the environment we live in and our exposure to disease.

“In the case of the historical samples, we know that the gold rush period was a time of great hardship in Perth.

“The city’s population quite literally exploded, resulting in severe shortages of fresh foods (our main source of zinc), as well as overcrowding, poor sanitation and the spread of diseases like typhoid.

“Poor diets coupled with regular exposure to diseases would have exhausted any zinc stocks that these people had in their bodies, leaving their immune systems compromised.

“Had they faced a pandemic like the one Perth residents are living through today, it is fair to say that the colony would have been highly vulnerable.”

The identity of the individuals whose hair was tested is not known because their graves were not marked. But an examination of skeletal remains suggested that the youngest was about 16 and the oldest was in their 50s.

The testing also found evidence that points to either alcohol or drug abuse in three of the individuals. Those samples contained abnormally high levels of sodium, indicating poor liver and kidney function.

Additionally, a range of rare earth elements were also present in some of the samples. The presence of those elements is likely to be linked to the arrival of scheme water in Perth in the early 1890s, which was sourced from a reservoir in the city’s hills. The pipes transporting scheme water were lined with concrete containing the same rare earth elements found in the hair samples.

“It was fascinating to see elements such as aluminum turn up in people’s hair, given that we know aluminum was not mined or used industrially in the colony until later in the 20th century,” Ms Jolliffe said.

The hair testing was conducted by Perth company LabWest Minerals Analysis, which donated its time and the use of its equipment.

The East Perth Cemeteries were Perth’s first colonial burial grounds, established in 1829. More than 10,000 people were buried there before its closure in 1899.

In the late 1930s, the Perth Girls’ School opened on land adjacent to the by then disused Presbyterian and Chinese cemeteries. By the 1950s the school needed more space and playing fields were created on top of the former burial site.

When the school closed, the playing fields were reused as a vehicle licensing centre. The Government then sold the land in 2018 to a private syndicate that now plans to build apartments on the site. As a condition of sale, all burials had to be carefully exhumed by archaeologists, before being respectfully reinterred at Karrakatta.

The work to exhume and relocate the graves was carried out by archaeology firm Terra Rosa Consulting, with the assistance of archaeology students from The University of Notre Dame.

A range of interesting artefacts were also collected from the burial sites and now form part of an exhibition hosted by the National Trust of Western Australia.

More information about the East Perth Cemeteries is available at eastperthcemeteries.com.au.


Media Contact: media@nd.edu.au