A carbon and nitrogen isotope perspective on ancient human diet in the British Isles

Bird, Michael I., Haig, Jordahna, Ulm, Sean, and Wurster, Christopher (2022) A carbon and nitrogen isotope perspective on ancient human diet in the British Isles. Journal of Archaeological Science, 137. 105516.

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Abstract

The stable carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) isotope composition of human bone collagen is increasingly used to investigate past mobility and subsistence strategies. This study presents a compilation of 1298 carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses of archaeological human bone collagen from the British Isles spanning much of the Holocene, along with a compilation of 4148 analyses of modern and ancient isotope analyses from the major marine and terrestrial dietary resources from the same region. We convert ancient human stable isotope data to modern diet equivalent (MDE) values for humans, and convert the isotope composition of ancient dietary items to modern tissue equivalent (MTE) isotope values. These conversions enable a direct comparison of ancient and modern datasets. Results for food groups (plants, grain, herbivores, omnivores, shellfish, freshwater fish and marine fish) show a remarkably broad range of δ13CMTE values from ∼-36 to −7‰ and δ15NMTE values from ∼-2 to +21‰ and we provide estimates for each food type that can be used in dietary reconstruction in the absence of site-specific data. We further show that there is no significant change in terrestrial stable isotope baseline values over the Holocene, with observed variability in baseline values due to local eco-physiological, edaphic and microclimatic factors. The range of values expressed in the human sample set from the beginning of the Iron Age is relatively tightly clustered with 50% of all human modern diet equivalent results falling within a ∼2‰ range in δ13CMDE values (−25.5 to −27.5‰) and a ∼3.5‰ range in δ15NMDE values from (+4‰ to +8‰). From the Iron Age to post-medieval times there is a consistent progressive shift to higher δ13CMDE and δ15NMDE values at the population level. This shift likely reflects a combination of successive innovations associated with food production, preservation and transport that enabled a broader cross-section of the population of the British Isles to incorporate a higher proportion of animal, and particularly marine protein, into their diets.

Item ID: 70818
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 1095-9238
Keywords: diet; isoscapes; stable isotopes; palaeodiet; isotope forensics
Copyright Information: Published Version: © 2021 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. Accepted Version may be made open access under a CC BY-NC-ND license after an embargo of 36 months.
Funders: Australian Research Council (ARC)
Projects and Grants: ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CE170100015)
Date Deposited: 10 Nov 2021 23:03
FoR Codes: 43 HISTORY, HERITAGE AND ARCHAEOLOGY > 4301 Archaeology > 430101 Archaeological science @ 70%
37 EARTH SCIENCES > 3703 Geochemistry > 370303 Isotope geochemistry @ 30%
SEO Codes: 13 CULTURE AND SOCIETY > 1307 Understanding past societies > 130704 Understanding Europe’s past @ 100%
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