Isotopes and the Dead People They Inhabit

Contributed by Frank Feeley.

Frank is an archaeologist who works on excavations in the North Atlantic, retracing the steps of Erik the Red from Iceland to Greenland. He has also worked at Tutor.com as part of the Customer Service team.

Chemistry and isotopesLearning about isotopes was a relatively small part of my high school chemistry studies. Even though the lesson was short, I distinctly remember wondering why I was learning about this. After all, why would a future world-famous rock star ever need to know about isotopes? Well, after realizing that rock-n-roll makes a better hobby than steady career and that my anthropology courses in college were quite interesting I found out just how powerful isotopes could be in tracing our species’ past and figuring out where our ancestors traveled from. Who would have thought that a tiny isotope could do all that?

The bedrock in each area of our world has a particular isotopic signature. These isotopes are leached into the ground water that we all drink. When we’re young and we’re growing our adult teeth the enamel takes on the same isotopic signature of our area’s water. This signature stays with us until death. Further, our bones also take on this isotopic signature but since the cells in our bones are constantly changing we take on the isotopic signature of the place that we’re living now. For archaeologists who uncover a skeleton this can tell us where someone was born and where they spent most of their life.

One of the biggest questions of prehistoric European archaeology is how exactly people are moving around the landscape. We find that certain artifacts are found in areas that are very distant from one another. Do we find these similar art styles because people moved and brought these styles with them? Or were they result of massive trade networks of elite goods?

Isotopic analysis was able to shed some more light in this question after the discovery of the skeletal remains of the Amesbury Archer. Excavated near Stonehenge, he dates from about 2300BC and represents the most artifact-rich burial ever found dating from Bronze Age England. If he was from the area this would suggest that there was simply an extensive trade network. While if he was from elsewhere it might suggest that there had been a migration of people. It ends up that the Archer’s isotopic signature matched the ground water in an area of the Alps in Mainland Europe!

While this information doesn’t close the book on how people and goods moved through the prehistoric European landscape it does give archaeologists more data to decode this mystery. Without isotopes this wouldn’t be possible!

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