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:

Same old in Middle Neolithic diets? A stable isotope study of bone collagen from the burial community of Jechtingen, southwest Germany
Journal of Anthropological Archaeology (2015)
Alexander Mörseburg, Kurt W. Alt, Corina Knipper

Dietary patterns and subsistence strategies of the early farmers of the central European Linearbandkeramik culture (LBK) have received much research attention, but only little is known about subsequent Neolithic time periods. In order to address continuity or alterations through time, this study explores bone collagen carbon and nitrogen isotope data from the Middle Neolithic cemetery of Jechtingen in southwest Germany, attributed to the ceramic phases of Großgartach, Planig-Friedberg and Rössen (4850/4800–4500 BC). The dataset comprises 77 individuals making it the most extensive from this period to date. The average values of the adults are −20.6 ± 0.3‰ for δ13C and 9.4 ± 0.8‰ for δ15N (n = 62) indicating a mixed diet of animal and plant proteins based on a terrestrial C3 ecosystem. There is no indication of dietary differences due to age or sex. The δ13C values follow regional trends emerging from previously investigated LBK and Middle Neolithic sites. They appear to be primarily driven by environmental factors, such as annual precipitation rates. Concerning δ15N, LBK and Middle Neolithic datasets overlap widely, and Jechtingen falls well into the data ranges of other previously published sites. The stable isotope data do not hint at remarkable changes of the dietary habits between the food-producing communities of the LBK and the subsequent Middle Neolithic

Isotopic Reconstruction of the Late Longshan Period (ca. 4200-3900 BP) Dietary Complexity before the Onset of State-Level Societies at the Wadian Site in the Ying River Valley, Central Plains, China
International Journal of Osteoarchaeology (2015)
X. L. Chen, Y. M. Fang, Y. W. Hu, Y. F. Hou, P. L??, J. Yuan, G. D. Song, B. T. Fuller, M. P. Richards

During the late Longshan period (ca. 4200–3900 BP) settlements on the Central Plains of China underwent a diversification in food production technologies, which set the stage for rapid economic and social development. The introduction of novel domesticates such as rice, wheat, cattle, and sheep not only provided more food choices, but also changed ideas concerning land use, farming techniques, and the use and mobilization of large scale labor forces. To better understand the contribution that these new dietary items and practices made to shaping the late Longshan period societies, a stable isotope ratio study of humans (n = 12) and animals (n = 42) was conducted at the late Longshan period site of Wadian. The human δ13C and δ15N values are clustered into two distinct groups. One group of nine individuals (δ13C = −9.9 ± 0.7‰; δ15N = 7.5 ± 0.5‰) had a predominately C4 diet based on millet grains with little protein input from the domestic animals. The other group of three individuals (δ13C = −14.3 ± 0.8‰; δ15N = 10.2 ± 0.3‰) had a mixed C3/C4 diet of millets and rice and were consuming sheep and cattle. The animals also displayed dietary diversity with the pigs (δ13C = −11.3 ± 2.5‰; δ15N = 6.9 ± 1.0‰, n = 10) and dogs (δ13C = −10.1 ± 1.0‰; δ15N = 7.2 ± 1.1‰, n = 7) having mostly a C4 plant based diet (millets). In contrast, the cattle (δ13C = −12.8 ± 2.1‰; δ15N = 7.6 ± 0.7‰, n = 9), sheep (δ13C = −16.7 ± 0.9‰; δ15N = 7.6 ± 0.1‰, n = 2), and cervids (δ13C = −20.8 ± 0.9‰; δ15N = 5.0 ± 1.2‰, n = 10) had diets with a greater contribution from C3 sources such as rice and wild plants. The discovery that humans and animals had different subsistence patterns indicates dietary complexity at Wadian and that rice agriculture, and cattle and sheep husbandry practices were already an important part of the local economy by the late Longshan period in the southern region of the Central Plains of China.
Tags: carbon , nitrogen , geol , arch , elem

Lipids , pots and food processing at Ho č evarica , Ljubljansko barje , Slovenia Lipids , pots and food processing at Ho ; evarica , Ljubljansko barje , Slovenia
Nives Ogrinc, Mihael Budja, Doris Poto

The paper presents the results of lipid analyses of pottery samples from Ho≠evarica (Ljub-ljansko barje, Slovenia). Total lipid extracts were subjected to high temperature gas chromatography(HT-GC), gas chromatography- mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and gas chromatography-combustion-iso-tope ratio mass spectrometry (GC-C-IRMS). The results show that some vessels were used for prepar-ing ruminant meat and vegetable, but also the remains of aquatic food were identified. The proces-sing of non-ruminant meat was detected in a few samples. A high number of pottery samples yieldedthe presence of beeswax lipids. The charred residual on pottery was AMS 14C dated.

Identification of kinship and occupant status in Mongolian noble burials of the Yuan Dynasty through a multidisciplinary approach.
Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences (2015)
Yinqiu Cui, Li Song, Dong Wei, Yuhong Pang, Ning Wang, Chao Ning, Chunmei Li, Binxiao Feng, Wentao Tang, Hongjie Li, Yashan Ren, Chunchang Zhang, Yanyi Huang, Yaowu Hu, Hui Zhou

The Yuan Dynasty (AD 1271-1368) was the first dynasty in Chinese history where a minority ethnic group (Mongols) ruled. Few cemeteries containing Mongolian nobles have been found owing to their tradition of keeping burial grounds secret and their lack of historical records. Archaeological excavations at the Shuzhuanglou site in the Hebei province of China led to the discovery of 13 skeletons in six separate tombs. The style of the artefacts and burials indicate the cemetery occupants were Mongol nobles. However, the origin, relationships and status of the chief occupant (M1m) are unclear. To shed light on the identity of the principal occupant and resolve the kin relationships between individuals, a multidisciplinary approach was adopted, combining archaeological information, stable isotope data and molecular genetic data. Analysis of autosomal, mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal DNA show that some of the occupants were related. The available evidence strongly suggests that the principal occupant may have been the Mongol noble Korguz. Our study demonstrates the power of a multidisciplinary approach in elucidating information about the inhabitants of ancient historical sites.
Tags: hydrogen , oxygen , arch , elem

An Isotopic Perspective on Animal Husbandry at the Xinzhai Site During the Initial Stage of the Legendary Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BC)
International Journal of Osteoarchaeology (2015)
L. L. Dai, Z. P. Li, C. Q. Zhao, J. Yuan, L. L. Hou, C. S. Wang, B. T. Fuller, Y. W. Hu

Located in the Central Plains of China, the early Xia Dynasty site of Xinzhai (2050 BC–1750 BC) with large archaeological features and exquisite artifacts of jade and copper is pivotal for probing the origin and formation of Chinese civilisation. Here, stable isotope ratios analysis, supplemented by zooarchaeological results, was used to investigate the exploitation and management of animals utilised by humans. It was demonstrated that a diverse pattern of animal raising and exploitation was present at the Xinzhai site. The domestic pigs were fed with substantial amounts of millets or their byproducts to guarantee a food source for the dietary demands of the humans. Dogs were also found to have consumed large amounts of C4 protein sources, likely in the form of human food scraps or leftovers. The domestic herbivores, sheep and cattle, showed different dietary characteristics in that the former mainly grazed in the natural environment, while the latter species were fed with large amounts of C4 products. This intra-species variation was somewhat related to their physiological characteristics but seems to have been more determined by their different status in social and ritual activities. Thus, this research at Xinzhai provides a glimpse of the organisation of animal resources during the initial formation of Chinese civilisation
Tags: carbon , arch , elem

Dietary isotope patterns and their social implications in a prehistoric human population from Sigatoka, Fiji
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2015)
Brianne Phaff, David V. Burley, Michael Richards

The late-1980s excavation of a well organized cairn-burial cemetery at the Sigatoka Sand Dunes site on Viti Levu, Fiji, recovered a population that is closely grouped in time with individuals coming from a nearby Fijian Plainware Phase village (1435–1300cal BP). Analysis of carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) stable isotopes from a sample of 22 of these individuals provides insight into village-level diet and its variation across the population. Results indicate a mixed diet high in C3 plant resources but with a key marine component. Variation in diet based on sex does not occur. Differential treatment of the dead through interment in large coral rock cairns versus pit burials in the cemetery, speaks to rank in Fijian antiquity. Individuals interred in cairns trend toward elevated carbon values, suggesting access to marine proteins as a potential correlate for status in the burial population. Isotopic measurements for a late prehistoric individual from Sigatoka and measurements from nine faunal samples also are presented. The latter, with other faunal measurements from Fiji, provides a food web for comparative interpretation of human diet.

Analysis of seasonal mobility of sheep in Iron Age Catalonia (north-eastern Spain) based on strontium and oxygen isotope analysis from tooth enamel: First results
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2015)
S. Valenzuela-Lamas, S. Jiménez-Manchón, J. Evans, D. López, R. Jornet, U. Albarella

This pilot study investigates the existence of seasonal movements of sheep – transhumance – in Iron Age Catalonia (North-Eastern Spain). The occurrence of seasonal movement of livestock between the coast and the interior, perhaps in relation to the Mediterranean market, was suggested for this area based on landscape and palynological studies. This hypothesis was tested on the basis of strontium, carbon and oxygen isotope analysis from seven sheep lower third molars. The evidence obtained suggests that the animals did not move across geological areas during the time of enamel mineralization. In addition, the paper provides valuable isotopic evidence that can be used in further studies.

Isotopic evidence for the trade and production of exotic marine mammal bone artifacts at Chavín de Huántar, Peru
Archaeol Anthropol Sci, Matthew P Sayre, Melanie J Miller, Silvana a Rosenfeld

This study uses stable isotope analysis to identify the possible origin and taxon of unusually large worked bone artifacts recovered from the site of Chavín de Huántar in the central highland of Peru (3200–2200 BP). The site was traditionally considered to be an ideal trading point halfway between the Pacific coast and the Amazon jungle. The archaeological specimens were discovered in a workshop area located in the La Banda sector across from the main temple, and they were analyzed for the stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and oxygen. Results indicate that the worked bone artifacts are marine in origin and are likely from a cetacean or large pinniped. Their exotic origin and elaborate work have implications about ancient production practices and exchange, and they provide benchmark data and a comparative approach for future analysis of exotic bone artifacts.
Tags: carbon , nitrogen , sulfur , arch , elem , mulitcarb

Osteological, biomolecular and geochemical examination of an early Anglo-Saxon case of lepromatous leprosy
PLoS ONE (2015)
Sarah A. Inskip, G. Michael Taylor, Sonia R. Zakrzewski, Simon A. Mays, Alistair W G Pike, Gareth Llewellyn, Christopher M. Williams, Oona Y C Lee, Houdini H T Wu, David E. Minnikin, Gurdyal S. Besra, Graham R. Stewart

We have examined a 5th to 6th century inhumation from Great Chesterford, Essex, UK. The incomplete remains are those of a young male, aged around 21-35 years at death. The remains show osteological evidence of lepromatous leprosy (LL) and this was confirmed by lipid biomarker analysis and ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis, which provided evidence for both multi-copy and single copy loci from the Mycobacterium leprae genome. Genotyping showed the strain belonged to the 3I lineage, but the Great Chesterford isolate appeared to be ancestral to 3I strains found in later medieval cases in southern Britain and also continental Europe. While a number of contemporaneous cases exist, at present, this case of leprosy is the earliest radiocarbon dated case in Britain confirmed by both aDNA and lipid biomarkers. Importantly, Strontium and Oxygen isotope analysis suggest that the individual is likely to have originated from outside Britain. This potentially sheds light on the origins of the strain in Britain and its subsequent spread to other parts of the world, including the Americas where the 3I lineage of M. leprae is still found in some southern states of America.
Tags: carbon , oxygen , arch , mulitcarb

14C chronology of the oldest Scandinavian church in use. An AMS/PIXE study of lime lump carbonate in the mortar
Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B: Beam Interactions with Materials and Atoms (2014)
Alf Lindroos, Heikki Ranta, Jan Heinemeier, Jan-Olof Lill

Mortar dating was applied to newly revealed, original mortar in the church of Dalby in Scania, southern Sweden which is considered to be the oldest still standing church in Scandinavia. Small white lime lumps were sampled by chipping from the supporting pillars in the interior of the church. Special emphasis was in sampling lime lumps because the church is situated in the Scania limestone area and aggregate limestone contamination was anticipated in the bulk mortars. Earlier studies have, however, shown that lime lumps do not contain aggregate material but only possible limestone rests from incomplete calcination. The sampled material was prepared for radiocarbon AMS dating. The carbonate in the lime lumps was hydrolyzed according to the sequential leaching technique developed for the Århus 14C laboratory in Denmark. Prior to the hydrolysis the lime lumps were examined for dead-carbon contamination using a stereo microscope and cathodoluminescence. The lime lumps displayed heterogeneous carbonate luminescence. This is, however, common and it was not considered a problem because carbonate growth in changing pH/Eh conditions often leads to changing luminescence colors. Two lumps had little dead carbon contamination and an early second millennium 14C signature. One lump, however, seemed to be heavily contaminated with dead carbon. Since the sample passed the microscopic screening, the leftovers of the lump was subjected to PIXE analysis and compared with the other two lumps. The well-defined, early 2nd millennium 14C age of the lime lumps of this particular church is an important contribution to the discussion on stone church chronology in Scandinavia.