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    Ancient Life Histories

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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Human diets during the social transition from territorial states to empire: Stable isotope analysis of human and animal remains from 770BCE to 220CE on the Central Plains of China
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2017)
Ligang Zhou, Sandra J. Garvie-Lok, Wenquan Fan, Xiaolong Chu

Chinese history from the Eastern Zhou to the Han Dynasty (770BCE to 220CE) witnessed a social transition from conflicting territorial states to a prosperous empire. This study investigates the effects of social changes on human diet using stable isotope analysis. Human remains (n=134) and contemporary faunal remains (n=14) from three sites located on the Central Plains of China were analyzed, and the results have shed light on human diets in the two different eras. Most individuals of the Eastern Zhou had diets based on millet and a limited amount of animal protein. The poor ate a significant amount of wheat, which may have been a response to the food pressures of their urban environment. Wheat consumption in the Han Dynasty increased significantly, likely in response to a population increase during the early imperial period, and patterns of animal protein consumption also differed from that of the Eastern Zhou. Status-related dietary variation in the two eras was reflected in the amount of wheat eaten rather than animal protein consumption. The dietary changes seen likely reflect both adaptive strategy and active change, and seem to have benefited human health in the following dynasties. The results also indicate that significant wheat consumption started in the lowest social classes, suggesting a bottom-up mode for the adoption of wheat into human diets of the area.

The adoption of pottery by north-east European hunter-gatherers: Evidence from lipid residue analysis
Journal of Archaeological Science (2017)
Ester Oras, Alexandre Lucquin, Lembi Lõugas, Mari Tõrv, Aivar Kriiska, Oliver E. Craig

Pottery was adopted by hunter-gatherers in the Eastern Baltic at the end of the 6th millennium cal BC. To examine the motivations for this cultural and technological shift, here we report the organic residue analysis of ceramic vessels from the earliest pottery horizon (Narva) in this region. A combined approach using GC-MS, GC-C-IRMS and bulk IRMS of residues absorbed into the ceramic and charred surface deposits was employed. The results show that despite variable preservation, Narva ceramic vessels were preferentially used for processing aquatic products. We argue that pottery was part of a new Late Mesolithic subsistence strategy which included more intensive exploitation of aquatic foods and may have had important implications, such as increased sedentism and population growth.

The adoption of pottery by north-east European hunter-gatherers: Evidence from lipid residue analysis
Journal of Archaeological Science (2017)
Ester Oras, Alexandre Lucquin, Lembi Lõugas, Mari Tõrv, Aivar Kriiska, Oliver E. Craig

Pottery was adopted by hunter-gatherers in the Eastern Baltic at the end of the 6th millennium cal BC. To examine the motivations for this cultural and technological shift, here we report the organic residue analysis of ceramic vessels from the earliest pottery horizon (Narva) in this region. A combined approach using GC-MS, GC-C-IRMS and bulk IRMS of residues absorbed into the ceramic and charred surface deposits was employed. The results show that despite variable preservation, Narva ceramic vessels were preferentially used for processing aquatic products. We argue that pottery was part of a new Late Mesolithic subsistence strategy which included more intensive exploitation of aquatic foods and may have had important implications, such as increased sedentism and population growth.

Human diets during the social transition from territorial states to empire: Stable isotope analysis of human and animal remains from 770BCE to 220CE on the Central Plains of China
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2017)
Ligang Zhou, Sandra J. Garvie-Lok, Wenquan Fan, Xiaolong Chu

Chinese history from the Eastern Zhou to the Han Dynasty (770BCE to 220CE) witnessed a social transition from conflicting territorial states to a prosperous empire. This study investigates the effects of social changes on human diet using stable isotope analysis. Human remains (n=134) and contemporary faunal remains (n=14) from three sites located on the Central Plains of China were analyzed, and the results have shed light on human diets in the two different eras. Most individuals of the Eastern Zhou had diets based on millet and a limited amount of animal protein. The poor ate a significant amount of wheat, which may have been a response to the food pressures of their urban environment. Wheat consumption in the Han Dynasty increased significantly, likely in response to a population increase during the early imperial period, and patterns of animal protein consumption also differed from that of the Eastern Zhou. Status-related dietary variation in the two eras was reflected in the amount of wheat eaten rather than animal protein consumption. The dietary changes seen likely reflect both adaptive strategy and active change, and seem to have benefited human health in the following dynasties. The results also indicate that significant wheat consumption started in the lowest social classes, suggesting a bottom-up mode for the adoption of wheat into human diets of the area.

Eating in prosperity: First stable isotope evidence of diet from Palatial Knossos
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2016)
Argyro Nafplioti

This paper discusses the first stable isotope evidence of diet from Protopalatial to Neopalatial Knossos on Crete to reconstruct individual long-term dietary records for people from the site, spanning the period circa 1900 to 1600BC. The aim is to shed light onto the lifeways and social organization of the respective communities, and to investigate people's everyday life for evidence of the site's politico-economic supremacy in the Neopalatial period. Eighty-one human and 12 animal individuals from two Palatial cemeteries at Knossos were sampled for cortical bone and the extracted collagen was analyzed for stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios to trace relative proportions of (broad categories of) foodstuffs that they consumed on a day-to-day basis. The human collagen stable isotope signatures follow a broad distribution that reflects a range of diets, where animal protein, including marine in addition to terrestrial, was consumed at different levels. Faunal isotope values from the site are consistent with a terrestrial C3 trophic context with apparently no C4 protein input. The observed dietary variation in the human stable isotope ratios shows no clear sex-, tomb-, or cemetery-pattern; it rather follows a temporal trend that is in tune with contemporary socio-economic and political developments and the increasing prosperity of Knossos in the period investigated. Moreover, the study yielded the first positive human palaeodietary evidence for marine food consumption in Prehistoric Crete.

Historic commodity of sulfur prevailed during the early to middle 19th century in Japan: A stable isotopic analysis for tracing the provenance
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2016)
Chitoshi Mizota, Toshiro Yamanaka, Ryoko Furukawa, Yuki Furukawa

Demands for native volcanic sulfur as one of the ingredients of gunpowder reached a maximum during the early to middle 19th century, when abrupt changes in the political regime occurred in Japan. The historic commodity of sulfur prevailing during this time was analyzed for stable isotopic ratios (expressed as δ34S) to examine the provenance. The sampled sulfur involves the Siebold collection (acquisition by P. F. von Siebold in Nagasaki, northern Kyushu and kept in Naturalis, Leiden, The Netherlands) and Egawa library (Nirayama, central Japan) for which exact location of the origin is ambiguous or absent. The sulfur isotopic data were evaluated by comparison with the revised database for the spatial distribution of δ34S values of operative sulfur mines throughout the Japanese archipelagos. With a few exceptions, the commodity sulfur was transported through short-distance marketing systems within close proximity to Nagasaki and Nirayama.

Bitumen in potsherds from two Apulian Bronze Age settlements, Monopoli and Torre Santa Sabina: Composition and origin
Organic Geochemistry (2016)
Marianna Faraco, Antonio Pennetta, Daniela Fico, Giacomo Eramo, Enkeleida Beqiraj, Italo Maria Muntoni, Giuseppe Egidio De Benedetto

Bitumen was found to occur on archaeological potsherds collected from two Apulia Middle Bronze Age sites, Monopoli and Torre Santa Sabina (Italy). Bitumen from two different areas, Majella (Italy) and Selenicë (Albania), were analyzed as potential reference samples to assess the geographic origin of the archaeological bitumen using geochemical analytical techniques. Analysis of the archaeological samples from different layers at both sites showed that the bitumen possesses the same gross composition and biomarker distribution patterns. Sterane and terpane profiles from the archaeological samples were very similar to some of the geological samples collected from Selenicë. In both archeological and selected Selenicë samples, sterane distributions were dominated by the C29 homologues (46–54%), followed by the C27 (26–33%) and C28 homologues (ca. 21%). Other biomarkers, such as gammacerane and oleanane, as well as the stable carbon isotopic composition of the asphaltene fraction, also suggest that the bitumen from the two archaeological sites was imported from Albania during Middle Bronze Age.

Stable isotopes in guano: Potential contributions towards palaeoenvironmental reconstruction in Tabon Cave, Palawan, Philippines
Quaternary International (2016)
O. Choa, M. Lebon, X. Gallet, E. Dizon, W. Ronquillo, S.C. Jago-on, F. Détroit, C. Falguères, B. Ghaleb, F. Sémah

Tabon Cave is a key site for the understanding of modern human dispersals in the Philippine archipelago and Island Southeast Asia. Nestled in the karst landscape that borders the southwestern coast of Palawan, it has delivered the earliest confirmed Homo sapiens remains in the Philippines dating to the late Pleistocene, as far back as around 47 ka. Among other methods, the broad characteristics of the environment in which these humans once lived may be drawn using stable isotope analysis of the rich guano deposits in the cave, an approach that follows a growing number of studies indicating the potential of guano as a palaeoenvironmental archive. δ13C values reveal the general prevalence of C3 forest tempered by savannah woodland with grassland contributions both well before and slightly after a securely-dated fireplace at 32 ka; the lower interval would refer to OIS 3 or older interglacial periods, while the upper interval would refer to the transition either before or after the Last Glacial Maximum. No useful conclusions are drawn from δ15N results due to suspected ammonia fractionation. Pending future dating efforts for confirmation, this preliminary study contributes to the development of an alternative and promising palaeoenvironmental proxy and hopes to shed further light on the prehistoric odysseys that took place across Island Southeast Asia.
Tags: carbon , nitrogen , geol , arch , clim , elem

A Community in Life and Death: The Late Neolithic Megalithic Tomb at Alto de Reinoso (Burgos, Spain)
PLOS ONE (2016)
Kurt W. Alt, Stephanie Zesch, Rafael Garrido-Pena, Corina Knipper, Anna Szécsényi-Nagy, Christina Roth, Cristina Tejedor-Rodríguez, Petra Held, Íñigo García-Martínez-de-Lagrán, Denise Navitainuck, Héctor Arcusa Magallón, Manuel A. Rojo-Guerra, JF Gibaja-B

The analysis of the human remains from the megalithic tomb at Alto de Reinoso represents the widest integrative study of a Neolithic collective burial in Spain. Combining archaeology, osteology, molecular genetics and stable isotope analysis (87Sr/86Sr, δ15N, δ13C) it provides a wealth of information on the minimum number of individuals, age, sex, body height, pathologies, mitochondrial DNA profiles, kinship relations, mobility, and diet. The grave was in use for approximately one hundred years around 3700 cal BC, thus dating from the Late Neolithic of the Iberian chronology. At the bottom of the collective tomb, six complete and six partial skeletons lay in anatomically correct positions. Above them, further bodies represented a subsequent and different use of the tomb, with almost all of the skeletons exhibiting signs of manipulation such as missing skeletal parts, especially skulls. The megalithic monument comprised at least 47 individuals, including males, females, and subadults, although children aged 0–6 years were underrepresented. The skeletal remains exhibited a moderate number of pathologies, such as degenerative joint diseases, healed fractures, cranial trauma, and a low intensity of caries. The mitochondrial DNA profiles revealed a pattern pointing to a closely related local community with matrilineal kinship patterns. In some cases adjacent individuals in the bottom layer showed familial relationships. According to their strontium isotope ratios, only a few individuals were likely to have spent their early childhood in a different geological environment, whilst the majority of individuals grew up locally. Carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis, which was undertaken to reconstruct the dietary habits, indicated that this was a homogeneous group with egalitarian access to food. Cereals and small ruminants were the principal sources of nutrition. These data fit in well with a lifestyle typical of sedentary farming populations in the Spanish Meseta during this period of the Neolithic.
Tags: carbon , nitrogen , arch , elem

Environmental context for the terminal Ediacaran biomineralization of animals.
Geobiology (2016)
H Cui, A J Kaufman, S Xiao, S Peek, H Cao, X Min, Y Cai, Z Siegel, X-M Liu, Y Peng, J D Schiffbauer, A J Martin

In terminal Ediacaran strata of South China, the onset of calcareous biomineralization is preserved in the paleontological transition from Conotubus to Cloudina in repetitious limestone facies of the Dengying Formation. Both fossils have similar size, funnel-in-funnel construction, and epibenthic lifestyle, but Cloudina is biomineralized, whereas Conotubus is not. To provide environmental context for this evolutionary milestone, we conducted a high-resolution elemental and stable isotope study of the richly fossiliferous Gaojiashan Member. Coincident with the first appearance of Cloudina is a significant positive carbonate carbon isotope excursion (up to +6‰) and an increase in the abundance and (34) S composition of pyrite. In contrast, δ(34) S values of carbonate-associated sulfate remain steady throughout the succession, resulting in anomalously large (>70‰) sulfur isotope fractionations in the lower half of the member. The fractionation trend likely relates to changes in microbial communities, with sulfur disproportionation involved in the lower interval, whereas microbial sulfate reduction was the principal metabolic pathway in the upper. We speculate that the coupled paleontological and biogeochemical anomalies may have coincided with an increase in terrestrial weathering fluxes of sulfate, alkalinity, and nutrients to the depositional basin, which stimulated primary productivity, the spread of an oxygen minimum zone, and the development of euxinic conditions in subtidal and basinal environments. Enhanced production and burial of organic matter is thus directly connected to the carbon isotope anomaly, and likely promoted pyritization as the main taphonomic pathway for Conotubus and other soft-bodied Ediacara biotas. Our studies suggest that the Ediacaran confluence of ecological pressures from predation and environmental pressures from an increase in seawater alkalinity set the stage for an unprecedented geobiological response: the evolutionary novelty of animal biomineralization.
Tags: sulfur , geol , arch , elem