Historical evidence suggests 17th-century sailors defied the odds—and the physical limitations of the human body—by surviving off their limited and unhealthy diets while at sea. Texas A&M University Ph.D. student Grace Tsai ’18 has set out to find out what made this phenomenon possible.
Tsai is a member of the Aggie Research Scholars program and Texas A&M’s Institute of Nautical Archaeology, a private nonprofit research institute that works closely with the university’s nautical archaeology program. Originally from the Los Angeles area, she received her undergraduate degree at the University of California, San Diego, but came to Texas A&M when she heard it offered one of the nation’s best nautical archaeology programs. She has submitted and is awaiting approval for her master’s degree in anthropology with a concentration in nautical archaeology and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in the same subject from the College of Liberal Arts.
Tsai first became interested in the irregular diets of swashbucklers on pre-industrial ships while writing a paper for a maritime seafaring course. Something about the dietary information she found didn’t add up.
“I would look at historical documents, look up the ingredients in the food and rations they had, and then compare them to FDA charts and graphics. Ultimately, I ended up getting some strange values,” said Tsai. “For example, the sailors’ sodium intake was 42 times the upper limit per day, which should kill somebody. I eventually decided that the only way to further analyze this would be to actually make the food and put it on a ship to see how it degrades over time.”
Fortunately, Tsai received a Glasscock Research Fellowship in 2016, which provided funds for the project. Glasscock fellowships are made possible through an endowed gift by Susanne and Melbern Glasscock ’59 through the Texas A&M Foundation and provide financial assistance to up to ten students working on a doctoral dissertation or master’s thesis. These fellowships help Texas A&M maintain its reputation as an intensive, rigorous and unique research institution while affording outstanding opportunities for ambitious researchers like Tsai.
To conduct the research, Tsai’s team will prepare salted beef, salted pork, salted cod, ship biscuit, beer, peas and oatmeal to be placed in barrels and stored aboard Elissa, a 19th-century ship docked in Galveston. To recreate the food of the time as accurately as possible, the team decided to refer to a combination of historical documents and modern archaeological findings. Tsai has used several 17th-century cookbooks and ship journals as well as samples of plants and fauna found within shipwrecks to create the standardized recipes for the project.
“Cookbooks were often made by and for the elite, because most people couldn’t even read and write,” Tsai said. “So, our food won’t be 100 percent accurate to what the sailors had, but the cookbooks do give us a good idea of the resources and technology available at the time for food.”
The brewing process to recreate the beer will be similar, but the difference will be in the ingredients. Tsai hopes to obtain a sample of 230-year-old yeast that was taken from a shipwreck off the coast of Australia to aid in recreating a 17th-century brew. She also plans to collaborate with Karbach Brewing Co. in Houston.
“We’re interested in a collaboration where Karbach will take this old recipe and create a beer as close as they can to the original while still following FDA standards,” Tsai said. “We hope to put this in two exhibits: one in the Houston Maritime Museum and one in the Texas Seaport Museum.”
Several students in a variety of educational backgrounds have assisted with Tsai’s project for course credit or certification. Tsai said she enjoys having a wide range of assets in her students.
“We have students from anthropology, nutrition, microbiology, biomedical sciences and even engineering,” she said. “I’m actually working with the engineering department on an integrated system that could tell us many of the qualities of the food and beer without needing to expose the contents of the barrel to the air.”
The food will be left on the ship for two months while the team collects samples beginning in August. After that, they will begin analyzing the samples in their lab to begin drawing conclusions. To avoid any unknown hazards, nobody involved will consume any of the food. Tsai believes that some of the answers she seeks about how sailors survived off these diets may be rooted in the hygiene hypothesis and microbes found within the food.
“The human body has a surprising ability to adapt to even the most difficult situations and circumstances,” she said. “I believe that the food on board, if eaten for long periods of time, would’ve been really bad for them but since they restricted their diet to this food only during voyages or winter time while on land, they were able to survive.”
In accordance with the hygiene hypothesis, she thinks that antibodies built up
from an overall dirtier and unsanitary standard of life gave way to stronger immune systems in people.
“Even though people who lived centuries ago had a lower standard of living and were exposed to more bad germs, they also built up an immunity stronger than that of today’s average person to combat them,” Tsai said.
Tsai believes analysis of the microbes in the food might not only explain how sailors lived under such unhealthy conditions, but also offer something useful for the health of people today.
“I’m hoping that by studying the different microbe values in the food they consumed, we’ll get a bigger picture of how health has changed based on peoples’ diets and find beneficial microbes they may have eaten in the past that we may not know about today—because, obviously, nobody eats 17th-century salted beef now,” Tsai said.
The project will serve as Tsai’s Ph.D. dissertation, and she plans to continue teaching and researching at Texas A&M until her graduation in fall 2018. After obtaining her Ph.D., she hopes to continue in academia and research or start a company to find and commercialize strains of probiotics. Regardless of her path, she is confident that this research will benefit her and the humanities field.
Learn more about Tsai’s project by visiting the team’s Facebook page or website.
Funding graduate fellowships for students like Grace Tsai ’18 can support important research and attract strong students to Texas A&M’s graduate programs. Endowed graduate fellowships can be established starting at $25,000. All fellowships will support Texas A&M University’s Lead by Example fundraising campaign.