Ancient Life Histories


Human culture and evolution has evolved over thousands of years, the majority of which occur in prehistory at times of limited or non-existent record keeping, hampered by literacy and preservation of any written documents which were created; archaeology provides the methods for studying prehistory where such written documents are lacking. Archaeology draws upon a range of techniques to form an understanding of how culture evolved, and which forces could have been responsible for shaping our society in the modern age.

Stable isotope analysis is a powerful tool in chemical archaeology, allowing archaeologists to reconstruct ancient diets through the analysis of preserved bone collagen with the aim of determining changes in land use, when and how farming or fishing practices were adopted, and environmental pressures which may have forced changes in such practices. Analysis of burial materials can help to elucidate practices of religious or spiritual significance, whilst the study of residues left behind in archaeological pottery can cast light on the uses of those vessels. The use of multiple isotopes can be utilised to determine geographical origins and migration patterns, ultimately enabling an understanding of the rich and vibrant history of humankind through the ages.

Reconstruct ancient diets

One of the most fascinating aspects of archaeology is understanding the daily habits of ancient peoples. Chief among these is food – what sustained the ancients? Did primary food sources change over time? Seasonally? What about over the course of an Empire’s life? Was a change in diet responsible for the fall of an empire? All this can be revealed through isotopic signatures of hair, bones, and teeth compared to modern humans with known diets. With our leading elemental analyzers for stable isotope analysis (EA-IRMS) you can probe the ancients for their secrets.

Reveal what was traded, anointed and stored

Residues recovered from clay pottery can help uncover religious practices, show what products were economically viable, or simply what food stuffs sustained a society. Geographical origins can be deduced from 18O and 2H analysis, whilst primary sources for the residues can be got from 13C, 15N and 34S analysis. Both compound-specific analysis via gas chromatography (GC-IRMS) and bulk measurement by elemental analysis (EA-IRMS) can be carried out quickly, simply and reliably.

Unveil migration patterns

History is marked by the movement of people, whether it is entire populations or groups of individuals colonizing new lands. To detect this, 18O and 2H isotope analysis of hair or bone and teeth allows the individual to be directly related to their origin thanks to the natural meteorological variation of the water in their source environment. Our iso FLOW, driven by the UltiTrap, can be used for high-throughput, fully automated analysis of biogenic carbonate and meteorological water.

Archeological science publications using our instruments

Our customers use our instruments to do some amazing research in the archeology application field. To show you how they perform their research and how they use our IRMS instruments, we have collected a range of peer-reviewed publications which cite our products. You can find the citations below and then follow the links to the publishing journal should you wish to download the publication.

If you would like to investigate our available citations in more detail, or email the citation list to yourself or your colleagues then take a look at our full citation database.

48 results:

High-resolution serial sampling for nitrogen stable isotope analysis of archaeological mammal teeth
Journal of Archaeological Science (2016)
Eric J. Guiry, Joseph C. Hepburn, Michael P. Richards

We present the results of an archaeological application of a rapid method for high-resolution stable nitrogen isotope (δ15N) measurements of time-series samples of tooth dentine. Over 250 analyses of samples of untreated dentine powder taken at continuous millimeter intervals along the growth axis of archaeological pig tusks were compared to results from a subset of tandem δ15N measurements of extracted and purified tooth collagen from the same teeth. Samples were also taken at 0.25 mm depth intervals to test the effect of depth with respect to temporal resolution of diet. Results show that δ15N measurements of untreated dentine powder from well-preserved archaeological teeth provide: 1) broadly comparable δ15N values to extracted and purified collagen, and 2) a rapid method of assessing dietary change over much shorter time intervals than is possible using extracted collagen. Analyses also show that large changes in δ15N values can occur across the thickness of a tooth due to the inclusion of multiple growth layers and/or secondary dentine, which results in a significant time−averaging lag in dietary representation, as demonstrated by samples that analyze collagen from the full width of the tooth wall. This method will also be useful for initial prescreening of samples to select for specimens of interest before undertaking further, more rigorous, sample pre−treatment and measurement.

Not so deserted…paleoecology and human subsistence in Central Iberia (Guadalajara, Spain) around the Last Glacial Maximum
Quaternary Science Reviews (2016)
José Yravedra, Marie-Anne Julien, Manuel Alcaraz-Castaño, Verónica Estaca-Gómez, Javier Alcolea-González, Rodrigo de Balbín-Behrmann, Christophe Lécuyer, Claude Hillaire Marcel, Ariane Burke

In contrast to the coastal areas of the Iberian Peninsula, the Upper Palaeolithic settlement of central Iberia, dominated by the Spanish plateau, is poorly known. Traditional models assume a total or virtual depopulation of the interior of the Iberian Peninsula during the Last Glacial. In this paper we present a detailed investigation of human-environment interactions through the first zooarchaeological, taphonomic and isotopic study of the key site of Peña Capón, a rock shelter located in the south-eastern foothills of the Central System range that contains a multi-layered deposit dated to marine isotope stage 2 (MIS 2). Analyses of the faunal assemblages of the Proto-Solutrean (3) and Middle Solutrean (2) layers show that human preferentially hunted horse, deer and iberian ibex living in the vicinity of the rock shelter. Isotope geochemistry of the animal remains of Peña Capón provides us with the first detailed intra-tooth multi-proxy analysis for this time period in south-western Europe, providing estimates of climatic conditions, seasonal flucturation of diet, as well as patterns of seasonal mobility. Our results indicate that human presence at Peña Capón was apparently restricted to relatively warm intervals around the LGM or reflects the presence of an ecological refuge, and provide us with evidence of recurrent human presence in the Iberian interior during the Upper Paleolithic prior to the Magdalenian.
Tags: carbon , nitrogen , arch , ecol , elem

Morphological and genetic identification and isotopic study of the hair of a cave lion (Panthera spelaea Goldfuss, 1810) from the Malyi Anyui River (Chukotka, Russia)
Quaternary Science Reviews (2016)
O.F. Chernova, I.V. Kirillova, B. Shapiro, F.K. Shidlovskiy, A.E.R. Soares, V.A. Levchenko, F. Bertuch

We present the first detailed analyses of the preserved hair of a cave lion (Panthera spelaea Goldfuss, 1810). The hair was found in association with a skeleton that was recovered recently from perennially frozen Pleistocene sediments in the lower reaches of the Malyi Anyui River (Chukotka, Russia). We extract mitochondrial DNA from the hair to confirm its taxonomic identity, and perform detailed morphological analyses of the color and structure of the hair using light optical microscopy and SEM. In addition, we compare the cave lion hair to hair taken from the back and mane of an African lion. We find that cave lion hair is similar but not identical to that of the present-day lion. In addition to slightly different coloration, cave lions had a very thick and dense undercoat comprising closed and compressed wavy downy hair with a medulla. In addition, while the microstructures of the medulla and cortex of cave lion hair are similar in extinct and living lions, the cuticular scales of cave lion hair are higher than those in living lions, suggesting that cave lion hair is stronger and more robust than that of living lions. We hypothesize that the differences between cave lion hair and present-day lion hair may be due to adaptations of cave lions to the harsh climatic and environmental conditions of the Pleistocene Ice Ages.

AMS 14C dating at Can Ferrerons, a Roman octagonal building in Premià de Mar, Barcelona
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2016)
Marta Prevosti, Alf Lindroos, Jan Heinemeier, Ramon Coll

A singular Roman dwelling, octagonal in ground-plan, was excavated in the year 2000, in Premià de Mar. It is a freestanding pavilion within a larger settlement called Gran Via-Can Ferrerons. It was not possible to date it archaeologically because the basement trenches did not contain any significant dating artefacts. Archaeological research undertaken into the architectural typology of the monument led us to the hypothesis that the structure is to be interpreted as late Roman luxury domestic housing. It was decided to use AMS 14C dating of the mortar in the masonry. This procedure dates the hardening of the carbonate binder in the mortar, which is the actual time of construction. We present the results of three analyses of mortar samples taken from the walls of the building. Radiocarbon dates coincide with the assumed architectural typology date, the date of the strata excavated at the site, and the date of the construction technique. These matches support the validity of the results (5th and 6th century CE).

Effects of lipid extraction and ultrafiltration on stable carbon and nitrogen isotopic compositions of fish bone collagen
Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry (2016)
Eric J. Guiry, Paul Szpak, Michael P. Richards

Rationale Fish bone collagen isotopic measurements are increasingly important in palaeodietary and paleoenvironmental studies yet differences in the chemical and physical properties of fish relative to other vertebrate bones are rarely considered. Lipid content in fish bone, which can exceed 50%, may underlie the poor collagen integrity criteria typically observed in archaeological studies. Methods We compare stable carbon and nitrogen isotopic and elemental compositions of bone collagen prepared using four different methods from a wide range of modern fish species to: (1) assess the extent to which lipid content influences bone collagen δ13C and δ15N values, and (2) evaluate the relative efficacy of chemical (2:1 chloroform/methanol) and physical (30 kDa ultrafilters) methods for removing lipids from bones. Results Lower δ13C values were observed when the lipid content exceeded 5% of the initial bone mass. The lipid content did not influence the δ15N values. 30 kDa ultrafiltration, a common pretreatment for purifying archaeological collagen, removed fewer lipids and was associated with reduced collagen yields (37% loss) as well as altered amino acid compositions. In contrast, collagen prepared using a 2:1 chloroform/methanol lipid extraction step resulted in significantly improved collagen yields, elemental compositions, and isotopic measurements relative to a control treatment. Conclusions The chemical lipid extraction method (2:1 chloroform/methanol) performed significantly better than the physical lipid extraction method (30 kDa ultrafilters). Given the high quantities of lipids in fish bones we recommend the inclusion of a chemical lipid extraction step when isolating collagen from modern and archaeological fish bones.
Tags: carbon , nitrogen , arch , ecol , elem

Stable oxygen isotope evidence for mobility in medieval and post-medieval Trondheim, Norway
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2016)
Stian Suppersberger Hamre, Valérie Daux

Immigration and mobility in the medieval and post-medieval periods in Norway have, up until now, mainly been discussed on the basis of historical sources. This paper presents the results of stable oxygen isotope (δ18O) analyses of the 1st and 3rd molars from 95 individuals from medieval and post-medieval Trondheim, as well as new information about the δ18O composition in the precipitation and drinking water in Trondheim. Through these analyses, the authors have attempted to shed light on the age of migrating individuals and directions of migration, to investigate temporal changes with regard to migration, and to make suggestions regarding the proportion of immigrants to locals in the population. The results show that the majority of the immigrants came from areas to the north or east of Trondheim, and some travelled at least 800–1000km to come to Trondheim. It has also been shown that a large proportion of the medieval individuals moved during childhood. Both with regard to child mobility and migration in general, the evidence suggests that the migratory activity decreased from the medieval to the post-medieval period.
Tags: oxygen , arch , aquap

Dietary habits in New France during the 17th and 18th centuries: An isotopic perspective
American Journal of Physical Anthropology (2016)
J. Vigeant, I. Ribot, J.-F. Hélie

Objective Little attention has been given, so far, to the early colonial diet in New France from an isotopic perspective. Historical records that compare France to New France suggest a shift toward a more diverse diet, including a higher protein intake due to an improvement in living conditions in the New World, despite the retention of ancestral dietary habits. This hypothesis will be explored here. Materials and methods Stable carbon (organic and mineral) and nitrogen isotopes were measured on 43 individuals from Notre Dame cemetery (first Catholic parish church cemetery in Montreal, 1683–1803) as well as 13 French compatriots from La Rochelle, France (Protestant Hospital Cemetery, 1765–1792). Intragroup variation (age at death, sex, and/or burial location) was investigated and compared to compiled data from various northeastern North American sites (N = 99). Results The Notre Dame sample means are as follows: −19.6‰ versus VPDB for δ13Ccollagen, −12.22‰ versus VPDB for δ13Ccarbonate, and 11.5‰ versus AIR for δ15N. They are significantly lower than both La Rochelle (−18.4‰, −11.67‰, and 12.7‰, respectively, p ≤ .005) and the northeastern North American groups used for this comparison (p = .000). Discussion The isotopic values obtained from Notre Dame cemetery suggest that the diet was mainly based on C3 resources with limited C4 resources. Although different from all comparable contemporary sites, colonial Montreal's diet remains most similar to La Rochelle, France. This study agrees with historians who have suggested that French dietary traditions seem to have been retained among the early colonial inhabitants of Montreal.
Tags: carbon , nitrogen , arch , elem

Late Holocene landscape development around a Roman Iron Age mass grave, Alken Enge, Denmark
Vegetation History and Archaeobotany (2016)
Niels Emil Søe, Bent Vad Odgaard, Anne Birgitte Nielsen, Jesper Olsen, Søren M. Kristiansen

Sediments from the small lake Ilsø situated in the Illerup/Alken Enge Valley were studied in order to investigate past landscape development at the time of a probably ritual human mass burial following battle during the Roman Iron Age (ad 1–400). A pollen record from Ilsø and a number of other records from Jutland were combined using the Landscape Reconstruction Algorithm to reconstruct local vegetation changes through the last 2,800 years. These methods were supplemented by studies of catchment-related geochemistry of the Ilsø lake sediments. The results show a marked reforestation event associated with a strong decrease in erosion levels at the very beginning of the first century ad, contemporaneous with the finds of human remains at Alken Enge. Comparison with a pollen record 10 km away and with those from other sites, reveals that this reforestation occurs unusually early and rapidly, and is an unparalleled development in a Danish context. We suggest that the major landscape changes at the beginning of the Roman Iron Age and forest cover for the next few centuries comprise a possible example of ritual control of local land-use.
Tags: carbon , nitrogen , arch , elem

Weaning practices among pastoralists: New evidence of infant feeding patterns from Bronze Age Eurasia
American Journal of Physical Anthropology (2016)
Alicia Ventresca Miller, Bryan K. Hanks, Margaret Judd, Andrey Epimakhov, Dmitry Razhev

Objectives This paper investigates infant feeding practices through stable carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) isotopic analyses of human bone collagen from Kamennyi Ambar 5, a Middle Bronze Age cemetery located in central Eurasia. The results presented are unique for the time period and region, as few cemeteries have been excavated to reveal a demographic cross-section of the population. Studies of weaning among pastoral societies are infrequent and this research adds to our knowledge of the timing, potential supplementary foods, and cessation of breastfeeding practices. Materials and methods Samples were collected from 41 subadults (<15 years) and 27 adults (15+ years). Isotopic reference sets from adult humans as well as faunal remains were utilized as these form the primary and complementary foods fed to infants. Results Slight shifts in δ13C and δ15N values revealed that weaning was a multi-stage process (breastfeeding, weaning, and complete cessation of nursing) that began at 6 months of age, occurred over several years of early childhood, and was completed by 4 years of age. Discussion Our results indicate that weaning was a multi-stage process that was unique among late prehistoric pastoralist groups in Eurasia that were dependent on milk products as a supplementary food. Our discussion centers on supporting this hypothesis with modern information on central and east Eurasian herding societies including the age at which complementary foods are introduced, the types of complementary foods, and the timing of the cessation of breastfeeding. Integral to this work is the nature of pastoral economies and their dependence on animal products, the impact of complementary foods on nutrition and health, and how milk processing may have affected nutrition content and digestibility of foods. This research on Eurasian pastoralists provides insights into the complexities of weaning among prehistoric pastoral societies as well as the potential for different complementary foods to be incorporated into infant diets in the past.
Tags: carbon , nitrogen , arch , elem

Isotopic (13C, 15N) investigation of diet and social structure in Early Iron Age Halos, Greece
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2016)
Eleni Panagiotopoulou, Johannes van der Plicht, Anastasia Papathanasiou, Sofia Voutsaki, Elisavet Nikolaou, Fotini Tsiouka

This paper integrates the isotopic results on dietary variation with an in-depth contextual analysis of mortuary data from two Early Iron Age cemeteries in Halos, Thessaly, central Greece. While the diet was mainly based on C3 plant and animal protein, there is evidence for the consumption of C4 resources (millet) by a few females, but also increased meat consumption by some individuals, sometimes furnished with weapons or other wealthy offerings. In addition, infants, children and adults in the two cemeteries show a difference in δ15N values. The analysis therefore reveals possible emerging differentiation between age, sex and possibly status groups in a crucial period of Greek prehistory, after the disintegration of the Mycenaean palatial societies and the ensuing period of regression.