Perished pioneers in Perth

Hair testing reveals hardships in gold rush-era Perth, Australia.

A gold rush near Perth, eastern Australia, 140 years ago, attracted hundreds of outsiders hoping to strike it lucky. Recently, 100 of their burials had to be moved from the old East Perth Cemeteries, the first colonial burial ground established in 1829, to allow new apartments to be constructed. So what was life like for the gold-seeking incomers? Archaeologist Lauren Jolliffe decided to find out.


Jolliffe collected hair samples from 17 of their graves and applied the same hair testing technology used to detect illegal drugs in today’s athletes. The samples came from members of the Chinese and Presbyterian communities who died between 1881 and 1899, aged between about 16 and their 50s.


Nearly all of them had very low zinc levels, a sign of severely compromised immune systems. The burials came from the gold rush period, which is known to have been a time of hardship in Perth. So many people arrived in the city that there were severe shortages of fresh food (a major zinc source), sanitation was appalling, and diseases like Typhoid were endemic.


Furthermore, significant numbers of people consumed too much alcohol, so much so that three of the dead exhibited high sodium levels, a sign of poor liver and kidney functions. The results are graphic testimony to the realities of what was then frontier life.


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Image: The site under excavation. The hair was tested using a mass spectrometer, equipment and time courtesy of LabWest Minerals Analysis.

Credit: Terra Rosa Consulting.