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:

The oxygen isotope relationship between the phosphate and structural carbonate fractions of human bioapatite
Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry (2012)
Carolyn A. Chenery, Vanessa Pashley, Angela L. Lamb, Hilary J. Sloane, Jane A. Evans

RATIONALE Oxygen isotope analysis of archaeological human dental enamel is widely used as a proxy for the drinking water composition (δ18ODW) of the individual and thus can be used as an indicator of their childhood place of origin. In this paper we demonstrate the robustness of structural carbonate oxygen isotope values (δ18OC) in bioapatite to preserve the life signal of human tooth enamel by comparing it with phosphate oxygen isotope values (δ18OP) derived from the same archaeological human tooth enamel samples. METHODS δ18OC analysis was undertaken on 51 archaeological tooth enamel samples previously analysed for δ18OP values and strontium isotopes. δ18OC values were determined on a GV IsoPrime dual inlet mass spectrometer, following a series of methodological tests to assess: (1) The reaction time needed to ensure complete release of CO2 from structural carbonate in the enamel; (2) The effect of an early pre-treatment with dilute acetic acid to remove diagenetic carbonate; (3) Analytical error; (4) Intra-tooth variation; and (5) Diagenetic alteration. RESULTS This study establishes a direct relationship between δ18OC and δ18OP values from human tooth enamel (δ18OP = 1.0322 × δ18OC – 9.6849). We have combined this equation with the drinking water equation of Daux et al. (J. Hum. Evol. 2008, 55, 1138) to allow direct calculation of δ18ODW values from human bioapatite δ18OC (δ18ODW = 1.590 × δ18OC – 48.634). CONCLUSIONS This is the first comprehensive study of the relationship between the ionic forms of oxygen (phosphate oxygen and structural carbonate) in archaeological human dental enamel. The new equation will allow direct comparison of data produced by the different methods and allow drinking water values to be calculated from structural carbonate data with confidence
Tags: oxygen , geol , arch , mulitcarb

18O/16O ratio measurements of inorganic and organic materials by elemental analysis-pyrolysis-isotope ratio mass spectrometry continuous-flow techniques.
Rapid communications in mass spectrometry : RCM (2011)
François Fourel, François Martineau, Christophe Lécuyer, Hans-Joachim Kupka, Lutz Lange, Charles Ojeimi, Mike Seed

We have used a high-precision, easy, low-cost and rapid method of oxygen isotope analysis applied to various O-bearing matrices, organic and inorganic (sulfates, nitrates and phosphates), whose (18)O/(16)O ratios had already been measured. It was first successfully applied to (18)O analyses of natural and synthetic phosphate samples. The technique uses high-temperature elemental analysis-pyrolysis (EA-pyrolysis) interfaced in continuous-flow mode to an isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) system. Using the same pyrolysis method we have been able to generate a single calibration curve for all those samples showing pyrolysis efficiencies independent of the type of matrix pyrolysed. We have also investigated this matrix-dependent pyrolysis issue using a newly developed pyrolysis technique involving 'purge-and-trap' chromatography. As previously stated, silver phosphate being a very stable material, weakly hygroscopic and easily synthesized with predictable (18)O/(16)O values, could be considered as a good candidate to become a reference material for the determination of (18)O/(16)O ratios by EA-pyrolysis-IRMS.
Tags: oxygen , geol , arch , clim , elem

Palaeobiology of an extinct Ice Age mammal: Stable isotope and cementum analysis of giant deer teeth
Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology (2009)
Kendra L. Chritz, Gareth J. Dyke, Antoine Zazzo, Adrian M. Lister, Nigel T. Monaghan, Julia D. Sigwart

The extinct giant deer, Megaloceros giganteus, is among the largest and most famous of the cervids. Megaloceros remains have been uncovered across Europe and western Asia, but the highest concentrations come from Irish bogs and caves. Although Megaloceros has enjoyed a great deal of attention over the centuries, paleobiological study has focused on morphometric and distributional work until now. This paper presents quantitative data that have implications for understanding its sudden extirpation in western Europe during a period of global climate change approximately 10,60014C years ago (ca. 12,500 calendar years BP). We report here the first stable isotope analysis of giant deer teeth, which we combine with dental cementum accretion in order to document age, diet and life-history seasonality from birth until death. Enamel δ13C and δ18O measured in the second and third molars from seven individual giant deer suggest a grass and forb-based diet supplemented with browse in a deteriorating, possibly water-stressed, environment, and a season of birth around spring/early summer. Cementum data indicate that the ages of the specimens ranged from 6.5 to 14 years and that they possessed mature antlers by autumn, similar to extant cervids. In addition, the possibility for combining these two techniques in future mammalian paleoecological studies is considered. The data presented in this study imply that Megaloceros would have indeed been vulnerable to extirpation during the terminal Pleistocene in Ireland, and this information is relevant to understanding the broader pattern of its extinction. © 2009 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Tags: carbon , oxygen , arch , ecol , gashead

Multiproxy reconstruction of the palaeoclimate and palaeoenvironment of the Middle Miocene Somosaguas site (Madrid, Spain) using herbivore dental enamel
Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology (2009)
Laura Domingo, Jaime Cuevas-González, Stephen T. Grimes, Manuel Hernández Fernández, Nieves López-Martínez

Profound palaeoclimatic changes took place during the Middle Miocene. The Miocene Climatic Optimum (∼20 to 14–13.5 Ma) was followed by a sudden (∼200 ka) decrease in temperature and an increase in aridity around the world as a consequence of the reestablishment of the ice cap in Antarctica. Somosaguas palaeontological site (Madrid Basin, Spain) has provided a rich record of mammal remains coincident with this global event (Middle Miocene Biozone E,14.1–13.8 Ma). It contains four fossiliferous levels (T1, T3-1, T3-2 and T3-3, with T1 being the oldest) that span an estimated time of ∼105–125 ka. Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) and Rare Earth Element (REE) analyses performed on herbivore tooth enamel (Gomphotherium angustidens, Anchitherium cf. A. cursor, Conohyus simorrensis, Prosantorhinus douvillei and ruminants) indicate that diagenetic processes have not been intense enough as to obscure the original geochemical signal. Stable isotope (δ18OCO3, δ13CCO3 and δ18OPO4) analyses have been measured on the herbivore tooth enamel across these levels with the aim of determining to what extent the global cooling and aridity pattern is recorded at this site. A decrease in δ18OCO3 and δ18OPO4 has been detected from T1 to T3-3 and T3-1 to T3-3 respectively indicating a progressive drop of about 6 °C (from around 18 °C to 12 °C) in mean annual temperatures within T3. Tooth enamel δ13C values experience an increase from T3-1 to T3-3 suggesting an increase in aridity. Ba/Ca analyses have also been performed on the tooth enamel in order to detect changes in the palaeoecology of the studied taxa. This ratio allows the establishment of particular feeding patterns such as a more browsing habit in the case of Gomphotherium angustidens compared to Anchitherium cf. A. cursor as suggested by higher Ba/Ca values in the latter. Trace elements do not support any significant change across the succession in the dietary behaviour of the species analyzed, despite the stable isotopes evidence of an important palaeoclimatic shift from T1 to T3-3
Tags: carbon , oxygen , arch , ecol , clim , gashead

Characterisation and blind testing of radiocarbon dating of cremated bone
Journal of Archaeological Science (2008)
Jesper Olsen, Jan Heinemeier, Pia Bennike, Cille Krause, Karen Margrethe Hornstrup, Henrik Thrane

The success of radiocarbon dating of burned or cremated bones depends on the exposed temperature during burning and the degree of re-crystallisation of the inorganic bone matrix. We present a method for characterisation of likely cremated bones by employing visual inspection, infrared spectrometry and carbon stable isotope analysis on the bio-apatite fraction. The method of radiocarbon dating of cremated bones was tested by dating paired samples of bone and associated context materials such as pitch, charcoal and a dendrochronologically dated oak coffin. The dating of these paired test samples were largely performed as blind tests and showed excellent agreement between pitch and bone. The weighted mean age difference of all test samples is observed to -9 ± 6014C yr. To test the indicators and the effects of the degree of burning, a Late-Neolithic human individual has been studied, as this individual exhibits the full spectrum from low temperature burning (charred) to high temperature ("cremated") from one end of a single bone to the other. This is reflected as a marked step in numerous parameters as well as in a significant difference in 14C age between the charred and the cremated bone samples. © 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Tags: carbon , arch , elem

Evaluating bone collagen extraction methods for stable isotope analysis in dietary studies
Journal of Archaeological Science (2007)
M. L S Jørkov, Jan Heinemeier, Niels Lynnerup

The specific purpose of this study was to compare three different collagen extraction methods commonly used in isotope laboratories conducting dietary studies. We evaluated their resultant differences in δ13C and δ15N, collagen quality and collagen yield. Our study was based on well-preserved skeletal material from the medieval period in Denmark. Our study shows that there is a systematic significant difference in the yield and the δ13C values between the three methods. Using the method of DeNiro and Epstein [DeNiro, M.J., Epstein, S., 1981. Influence of diet on the distribution of nitrogen isotopes in animals. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 45, 341-351] with NaOH as cleaning agent, will, according to our study, give δ13C values that are on average ±0.32‰ more positive than using the ultra-filtration method [Brown, T.A., Nelson, D.E., Vogel, J.S., Southon, J.R., 1988. Improved collagen extraction by modified Longin method. Radiocarbon 30 (2), 171-177, modified in Richards, M.P., Hedges R.E.M., 1999. Stable isotope evidence for similarities in the types of marine foods used by late Mesolithic humans at sites along the Atlantic coast of Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 26, 717-722]. The third method, which is a modified version of the second method, excluded the ultra-filtration step. This method seems to give δ13C values that lie in between the other methods. Our study did not show any significant difference in δ15N values. Although the differences between the methods are very small, we conclude that the use of stable isotope analysis in food determination studies requires adherence to routine methods for preparing and measuring samples. © 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Tags: carbon , nitrogen , arch , elem

Isotope sourcing of prehistoric willow and tule textiles recovered from western Great Basin rock shelters and caves – proof of concept
Journal of Archaeological Science (2006)
L.V. Benson, E.M. Hattori, H.E. Taylor, S.R. Poulson, E.a. Jolie

Isotope and trace-metal analyses were used to determine the origin of plants used to manufacture prehistoric textiles (basketry and matting) from archaeological sites in the western Great Basin. Research focused on strontium (87Sr/86Sr) and oxygen (18O/16O) isotope ratios of willow (Salix sp.) and tule (Schoenoplectus sp.), the dominant raw materials in Great Basin textiles. The oxygen-isotope data indicated that the willow and tule used to produce the textiles were harvested from the banks of rivers or in marshes characterized by flowing water and not from lakes or sinks. The strontium-isotope data were useful in showing which plants came from the Humboldt River and which came from rivers headed in the Sierra Nevada

Fiona Petchey, Roger Green

In archaeological dating, the greatest confidence is usually placed upon radiocarbon results of material that can be directly related to a defined archaeological event. Human bone should fulfill this requirement, but bone dates obtained from Pacific sites are often perceived as problematic due to the incorporation of 14C from a range of different reservoirs into the collagen via diet. In this paper, we present new human bone gelatin results for 2 burials from the SAC archaeological site on Watom Island, Papua New Guinea, and investigate the success of calibrating these determinations using dietary corrections obtained from δ34S, δ15N, and δ13C isotopes.