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:

Rapid environmental change during dynastic transitions in Yunnan Province, China
Quaternary Science Reviews (2014)
Aubrey L. Hillman, JunQing Yu, Mark B. Abbott, Colin A. Cooke, Daniel J. Bain, Byron A. Steinman

Pollution and eutrophication of Chinese lakes are widely perceived to be 20th century phenomena. However, China has a long history of deforestation, agriculture, mineral resource extraction, and other anthropogenic activities that impact the environment. Here, we present a sediment record from Xing Yun Lake in the Yunnan Province of China that reveals significant alterations to the lake, its ecosystem, and its watershed beginning as early as 500 AD. A comprehensive suite of biogeochemical and isotopic proxies reveal several rapid transitions related to changes in agriculture and lake-level management that coincides with cultural and dynastic transitions. The deterioration of contemporary environmental conditions at Xing Yun arises from a long history of anthropogenic manipulation, eutrophication, and pollution of the lake and its watershed. This study highlights the importance of using historical records of industrial and agricultural activities, including landscape modification, in conjunction with records of climate change, to place present day environmental concerns into a long-term context. © 2014 Elsevier Ltd.
Tags: carbon , arch , poll , clim , mulitcarb

Temporal trends in millet consumption in northern China
Journal of Archaeological Science (2014)
Pia Atahan, John Dodson, Xiaoqiang Li, Xinying Zhou, Liang Chen, Linda Barry, Fiona Bertuch

Temporal trends in prehistoric millet consumption are investigated in two regions of northern China, in the Wei River valley and a northern zone that encompasses north-eastern Shaanxi, western Shanxi and south-central Inner Mongolia. By directly radiocarbon dating each sample investigated, inferences about the timing of dietary shifts inferred from stable carbon and nitrogen isotope compositions can be made with a high degree of precision. Evidence presented here indicates that humans living around 4000 years ago in both the Wei River valley and the northern zone were heavily dependent on millet for their subsistence. By ca. 2500 cal. yr BP, a major diversification of diet had occurred in the Wei River valley, with some consuming much larger proportions of C3 foods than previously. These C3 foods may have included the western-derived cereals – wheat, barley and oats – and also rice.

Palaeobotanical, chemical and physical investigation of the content of an ancient wine amphora from the northern Tyrrhenian sea in Italy
Journal of Archaeological Science (2014)
Daniele Arobba, Francesca Bulgarelli, Federica Camin, Rosanna Caramiello, Roberto Larcher, Lucia Martinelli

Elemental, isotopic and archaeobotanical analysis were performed on the contents of an intact Dressel 1B amphora from a Roman navis oneraria shipwreck dating back to 100-90BC, discovered at a depth of 42m near Albenga (Italy). Analysis aimed at assessing the origin and nature of the samples was carried out. The chemical characterisation, in particular lead content, was consistent with an oenological product produced using ancient techniques. The organic matrix was observed and shown to have deteriorated seriously, with infiltration of sea water and migration from the clay vessel. Isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) analysis confirmed that the residue was wine, excluding the possibility of the sediment coming from the sea or the clay of the amphora. As regards palynological analysis, the pollen components were useful for diagnosing and characterising the oenological nature and geographical origin of the sample from Albenga. The extremely high percentage of grape pollen suggested that the liquid traded was must or wine subjected to little decantation. Finally, the presence of pollen from certain arboreal species widespread in central-southern Italy is in accordance with the opinion of archaeologists, who have suggested that the cargo originated in the centre-south of the Tyrrhenian area. ?? 2014 Elsevier Ltd.
Tags: oxygen , arch , gashead

Isotopic and anatomical evidence of an herbivorous diet in the Early Tertiary giant bird Gastornis. Implications for the structure of Paleocene terrestrial ecosystems.
Die Naturwissenschaften (2014)
D. Angst, C. Lécuyer, R. Amiot, E. Buffetaut, F. Fourel, F. Martineau, S. Legendre, A. Abourachid, A. Herrel

The mode of life of the early Tertiary giant bird Gastornis has long been a matter of controversy. Although it has often been reconstructed as an apex predator feeding on small mammals, according to other interpretations, it was in fact a large herbivore. To determine the diet of this bird, we analyze here the carbon isotope composition of the bone apatite from Gastornis and contemporaneous herbivorous mammals. Based on (13)C-enrichment measured between carbonate and diet of carnivorous and herbivorous modern birds, the carbonate δ(13)C values of Gastornis bone remains, recovered from four Paleocene and Eocene French localities, indicate that this bird fed on plants. This is confirmed by a morphofunctional study showing that the reconstructed jaw musculature of Gastornis was similar to that of living herbivorous birds and unlike that of carnivorous forms. The herbivorous Gastornis was the largest terrestrial tetrapod in the Paleocene biota of Europe, unlike the situation in North America and Asia, where Gastornis is first recorded in the early Eocene, and the largest Paleocene animals were herbivorous mammals. The structure of the Paleocene terrestrial ecosystems of Europe may have been similar to that of some large islands, notably Madagascar, prior to the arrival of humans.
Tags: oxygen , arch , clim , elem

Interactions between Ediacaran animals and microbial mats: Insights from Lamonte trevallis, a new trace fossil from the Dengying Formation of South China
Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology (2014)
Mike Meyer, Shuhai Xiao, Benjamin C. Gill, James D. Schiffbauer, Zhe Chen, Chuanming Zhou, Xunlai Yuan

A new ichnogenus and ichnospecies, Lamonte trevallis, is formally described from the Shibantan Member limestone of the upper Ediacaran Dengying Formation, Yangtze Gorges area, South China. It is characterized by horizontal tunnels connected with short vertical burrows and surface trails. The horizontal burrows are elliptical or bilobed in transverse cross-section, preserved in full relief, and filled with carbonate intraclasts, micrites, as well as calcite and silica cements. They occur exclusively in silty, crinkled, and microlaminated layers that are interpreted as amalgamated cyanobacterial microbial mats; no burrows have been found in intraclastic layers adjacent to the microlaminated layers. The vertical traces are filled with the same material as the burrows, but they typically project through the crinkled microlaminae and are exposed on the bedding surface. The surface tracks are always preserved in negative epirelief or positive hyporelief and consist of two parallel series of either sharp scratch marks or small knobs. The burrow infill has δ18Ocarb and δ13Ccarb values distinct from, but intermediate between, microlaminated and intraclastic layers, consistent with petrographic observation that burrow infill consists of a mixture of early carbonate cements, intraclasts, and micrites. Bedding plane bioturbation intensity (20-40%)-measured as percentage of bedding plane area covered by L. trevallis traces-is comparable to similar measurements in pre-trilobite Cambrian carbonates. The exclusive occurrence of L. trevallis within microbial mats may have both taphonomic and ecological significance. These mats may have provided firm substrates and localized geochemical conditions that contributed to the structural integrity of the burrows, and they may have also facilitated early diagenetic cementation of burrow infill, thus facilitating burrow preservation. The close association of these burrows with microbial mats implies that the trace producers actively mined cyanobacterial mats to exploit oxygen or nutrient resources. The trace makers of L. trevallis were better able to utilize the resources around them than many other Ediacaran trace makers and provide an ichnological record of a flourishing benthic ecology in late Ediacaran oceans at the dawn of the agronomic revolution. © 2013 Elsevier B.V.
Tags: carbon , oxygen , arch , gashead

Preservation assessments and carbon and oxygen isotopes analysis of tooth enamel of Gigantopithecus blacki and contemporary animals from Sanhe Cave, Chongzuo, South China during the Early Pleistocene
Quaternary International (2014)
Yating Qu, Changzhu Jin, Yingqi Zhang, Yaowu Hu, Xue Shang, Changsui Wang

As one of the largest primates that ever lived, the finding of Gigantopithecus blacki mainly occurs in southern China during the Early and Middle Pleistocene. Previous stable carbon isotope analysis of G. blacki teeth showed that it relied on C3ebased foods in the Early Pleistocene. However, the deficiency of preservation assessment, other ape samples, and oxygen isotope data may hinder the dietary inter- pretation and understanding the dietary preference of G. blacki compared to human relative apes. In this study, XRD and FTIR were used to assess the crystallinity variation of apatite in fossil enamel of G. blacki and animals during the Early Pleistocene from Sanhe Cave, Chongzuo, Guangxi, South China. The results indicated that the carbonate group in enamel apatite still retained its biogenic signature although the crystallinity was enhanced during fossilization. The carbon isotope values of all fossil animals suggest that they consumed C3ebased foods. Most importantly, the oxygen isotope values of all animal fossils show that G. blacki as well as Pongo was engaged in mixedefeeding strategy, perhaps relying on grasses, plant leaves, stems or possible roots that are depleted in 18O. Moreover, lower oxygen isotope values of G. blacki than those from Pongo are observed, suggesting that G. blacki preferred plant roots or stems with lower d18O values.
Tags: carbon , oxygen , arch , gashead

Diet of ancient Egyptians inferred from stable isotope systematics
Journal of Archaeological Science (2014)
Alexandra Touzeau, Romain Amiot, Janne Blichert-Toft, Jean-Pierre Flandrois, François Fourel, Vincent Grossi, François Martineau, Pascale Richardin, Christophe Lécuyer

Carbon, nitrogen and sulfur stable isotope compositions were measured in hard and soft tissues from Egyptian mummies of humans and animals in order to track the diet of ancient Egyptians from 5500 to 1500 years B.P. The carbon isotope ratios of bone apatite (δ13Cbo = −14.3 ± 0.9‰) and hair protein (δ13Ch = −19.9‰) are compatible with a diet based almost exclusively on C3-derived food (proportion of C4 < 10%). Less negative carbon isotope ratios of enamel (δ13Cen = −11.6 ± 0.7‰) relative to bones from the same mummies could be the result of differences in the chemical microenvironment in which mineralization occurred, as well as of differences in diet between children and adults, in particular through the consumption of milk or millet gruel during infancy and childhood. High values of nitrogen isotope ratios for hair protein (δ15Nh = 9.1‰–15.5‰) are ascribed to aridity rather than fish consumption because the δ34S values of human hair are lower than those measured in Nile perch scales. Except for Coptic mummies, the constancy of δ13Cbo and δ13Cen over a duration of ∼3000 years is striking considering the various political, technological, and cultural changes that impacted the Egyptian civilization during this time interval.

Human subsistence strategy at Liuzhuang site, Henan, China during the proto-Shang culture (∼2000–1600 BC) by stable isotopic analysis
Journal of Archaeological Science (2013)
Liangliang Hou, Yaowu Hu, Xinping Zhao, Suting Li, Dong Wei, Yanfeng Hou, Baohua Hu, Peng Lv, Tao Li, Guoding Song, Changsui Wang

Since the discovery of the proto-Shang culture, created mostly by ancestors of the Shang clan from the late Neolithic Age to the early Shang period (∼2000–1600 BC), the subsistence strategy and lifestyle of humans in China during their movement southwards have been a great focus. Chinese literature and archaeological findings suggest that the proto-Shang societies were composed of different cultural groups and had various subsistence strategies. For example, at the Liuzhuang site, three types of burials, i.e., stone coffin, wooden coffin and earthen shaft-pit, are found. The wooden coffin and earthen shaft-pit burials had been adopted locally in the Central Plains since the Neolithic Age while the stone coffin burials were usually used by people living in Northeast China and had never been found in the Central Plains before. In this study, stable carbon and nitrogen isotopic analyses were performed on human bones from the Liuzhuang site and animal bones from Zhangdeng site in Henan province, China to determine whether different social groups had various accesses to food resources and whether their dietary difference was related to inequality in social status. Humans have mean δ13C and δ15N values of −7.6 ± 0.6‰ and 9.6 ± 1.0‰ (n = 19) respectively, which strongly indicates that humans rely primarily on C4-based food. The main contribution of C4-based food in their diet is from millet agriculture or animals that consume millet by-products. The isotopic spacing of carbon and nitrogen isotopic values between pigs and humans, between dogs and humans, and between cattle and humans, all imply that these animals were the main meat resources for humans. Surprisingly, the δ13C values and δ15N values of humans with different types of burials are quite close, indicating that they had equal access to food resources. This result suggests that the proto-Shang humans had adapted to the local subsistence strategy, and the local cultural factors in the Central Plains were very well integrated into proto-Shang culture.

The pilgrimage economy of Early Roman Jerusalem (1st century BCE–70 CE) reconstructed from the δ15N and δ13C values of goat and sheep remains
Journal of Archaeological Science (2013)
Gideon Hartman, Guy Bar-Oz, Ram Bouchnick, Ronny Reich

Religious and historical sources suggest that pilgrimage formed a major source of Jerusalem's economy during the Early Roman period due to the Temple's role as a religious and judicial center for the Jewish diaspora. Until now, this assertion has been supported by little material evidence. In this study, the carbon and nitrogen isotope values of local arcahaeological and, modern wild herbivores from known environments were used to determine the environmental origins of domesticated sheep and goat that were traded and consumed in Early Roman Jerusalem. Pinpointing the environmental origins of these herd animals can determine if they were raised in specialized farms in the vicinity of Jerusalem, brought to the city by local pilgrims, or were part of organized importation of sacrifice animals from desert regions that lie beyond the boundaries of the province of Judea. The results indicate that at minimum 37% of the goat and sheep consumed in Jerusalem during the Early Roman period were brought from desert regions. The inter-provincial importation of animals to Jerusalem to meet high demands for sacrifice by pilgrims is the first material evidence for large scale economic specialization in the city. Furthermore, the results imply that desert animals were further marketed for domestic use in contemporaneous farm sites out of Jerusalem

Transition to farming - Transition to milk culture: A case study from Mala Triglavca, Slovenia
Documenta Praehistorica (2013)
Mihael Budja, Nives Ogrinc, Andreja Žibrat Gašparič, Doris Potočnik, Dušan Žigon, Dimitrij Mlekuž

In this paper, we discuss the transition to milk culture. While archaeological and bioche-mical data suggest that dairying was adopted in the Neolithic in Europe, archaeogenetic data showthe absence of the allelic variant –13 910*T and very low lactase persistence in Neolithic populationsin Europe. The Mala Triglavca case study shows that the Early Neolithic economy in the Caput Ad-riae region was mixed. It consisted of milk and processed milk, meat animal products, freshwaterfish and various plants. The Vla∏ka group herders managed a broader spectrum of resources thanexclusively ovicaprids, and were able to produce a wide range of low-lactose, storable products byfermenting milk.