The Ice Man's diet as reflected by the stable nitrogen and carbon isotopic composition of his hair.
Establishing the diets of ancient human populations is an integral component of most archaeological studies. Stable isotope analysis of well-preserved bone collagen is the most direct approach for a general assessment of paleodiet. However, this method has been limited by the scarcity of well-preserved skeletal materials for this type of destructive analysis. Hair is preserved in many burials, but is often overlooked as an alternative material for isotopic analysis. Here we report that the stable carbon and nitrogen isotope values for the hair of the 5200 year-old Ice Man indicates a primarily vegetarian diet, in agreement with his dental wear pattern. Whereas previous investigations have focused on bone collagen, the stable isotope composition of hair may prove to be a more reliable proxy for paleodiet reconstruction, particularly when skeletal remains are not well preserved and additional archaeological artifacts are unavailable. (+info)
Documenting the diet in ancient human populations through stable isotope analysis of hair.
Fundamental to the understanding of human history is the ability to make interpretations based on artefacts and other remains which are used to gather information about an ancient population. Sequestered in the organic matrices of these remains can be information, for example, concerning incidence of disease, genetic defects and diet. Stable isotopic compositions, especially those made on isolates of collagen from bones, have been used to help suggest principal dietary components. A significant problem in the use of collagen is its long-term stability, and the possibility of isotopic alteration during early diagenesis, or through contaminating condensation reactions. In this study, we suggest that a commonly overlooked material, human hair, may represent an ideal material to be used in addressing human diets of ancient civilizations. Through the analysis of the amino-acid composition of modern hair, as well as samples that were subjected to radiation (thus simulating ageing of the hair) and hair from humans that is up to 5200 years old, we have observed little in the way of chemical change. The principal amino acids observed in all of these samples are essentially identical in relative abundances and content. Dominating the compositions are serine, glutamic acid, threonine, glycine and leucine, respectively accounting for approximately 15%, 17%, 10%, 8% and 8% of the total hydrolysable amino acids. Even minor components (for example, alanine, valine, isoleucine) show similar constancy between the samples of different ages. This constancy clearly indicates minimal alteration of the amino-acid composition of the hair. Further, it would indicate that hair is well preserved and is amenable to isotopic analysis as a tool for distinguishing sources of nutrition. Based on this observation, we have isotopically characterized modern individuals for whom the diet has been documented. Both stable nitrogen and carbon isotope compositions were assessed, and together provide an indication of trophic status, and principal type (C3 or C4) of vegetation consumed. True vegans have nitrogen isotope compositions of about 7/1000 whereas humans consuming larger amounts of meat, eggs, or milk are more enriched in the heavy nitrogen isotope. We have also analysed large cross-sections of modern humans from North America and Europe to provide an indication of the variability seen in a population (the supermarket diet). There is a wide diversity in both carbon and nitrogen isotope values based at least partially on the levels of seafood, corn-fed beef and grains in the diets. Following analysis of the ancient hair, we have observed similar trends in certain ancient populations. For example, the Coptics of Egypt (1000 BP) and Chinchorro of Chile (5000-800 BP) have diets of similar diversity to those observed in the modern group but were isotopically influenced by local nutritional sources. In other ancient hair (Egyptian Late Middle Kingdom mummies, ca. 4000 BP), we have observed a much more uniform isotopic signature, indicating a more constant diet. We have also recognized a primary vegetarian component in the diet of the Neolithic Ice Man of the Oetztaler Alps (5200 BP). In certain cases, it appears that sulphur isotopes may help to further constrain dietary interpretations, owing to the good preservation and sulphur content of hair. It appears that analysis of the often-overlooked hair in archaeological sites may represent a significant new approach for understanding ancient human communities. (+info)
Preservation of key biomolecules in the fossil record: current knowledge and future challenges.
We have developed a model based on the analyses of modern and Pleistocene eggshells and mammalian bones which can be used to understand the preservation of amino acids and other important biomolecules such as DNA in fossil specimens. The model is based on the following series of diagenetic reactions and processes involving amino acids: the hydrolysis of proteins and the subsequent loss of hydrolysis products from the fossil matrix with increasing geologic age; the racemization of amino acids which produces totally racemized amino acids in 10(5)-10(6) years in most environments on the Earth; the introduction of contaminants into the fossil that lowers the enantiomeric (D:L) ratios produced via racemization; and the condensation reactions between amino acids, as well as other compounds with primary amino groups, and sugars which yield humic acid-like polymers. This model was used to evaluate whether useful amino acid and DNA sequence information is preserved in a variety of human, amber-entombed insect and dinosaur specimens. Most skeletal remains of evolutionary interest with respect to the origin of modern humans are unlikely to preserve useful biomolecular information although those from high latitude sites may be an exception. Amber-entombed insects contain well-preserved unracemized amino acids, apparently because of the anhydrous nature of the amber matrix, and thus may contain DNA fragments which have retained meaningful genetic information. Dinosaur specimens contain mainly exogenous amino acids, although traces of endogenous amino acids may be present in some cases. Future ancient biomolecule research which takes advantage of new methologies involving, for example, humic acid cleaving reagents and microchip-based DNA-protein detection and sequencing, along with investigations of very slow biomolecule diagenetic reactions such as the racemization of isoleucine at the beta-carbon, will lead to further enhancements of our understanding of biomolecule preservation in the fossil record. (+info)
How microbial ancient DNA, found in association with human remains, can be interpreted.
The analysis of the DNA of ancient micro-organisms in archaeological and palaeontological human remains can contribute to the understanding of issues as different as the spreading of a new disease, a mummification process or the effect of diets on historical human populations. The quest for this type of DNA, however, can represent a particularly demanding task. This is mainly due to the abundance and diffusion of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, algae and protozoans in the most diverse environments of the present-day biosphere and the resulting difficulty in distinguishing between ancient and modern DNA. Nevertheless, at least under some special circumstances, by using rigorous protocols, which include an archaeometric survey of the specimens and evaluation of the palaeoecological consistency of the results of DNA sequence analysis, glimpses of the composition of the original microbial flora (e.g. colonic flora) can be caught in ancient human remains. Potentials and pitfalls of this research field are illustrated by the results of research works performed on prehistoric, pre-Columbian and Renaissance human mummies. (+info)
The molecular genetics of European ancestry.
In an earlier paper we proposed, on the basis of mitochondrial control region variation, that the bulk of modern European mitochondrial DNA(mtDNA) diversity had its roots in the European Upper Palaeolithic. Refining the mtDNA phylogeny and enlarging the sample size both within Europe and the Middle East still support this interpretation and indicate three separate phases of colonization: (i) the Early Upper Palaeolithic about 50,000 BP; (ii) the Late Upper Palaeolithic 11,000-14,000 BP; and (iii) the Neolithic from 8500 BP. (+info)
The robust australopithecine face: a morphogenetic perspective.
The robust australopithecines were a side branch of human evolution. They share a number of unique craniodental features that suggest their monophyletic origin. However, virtually all of these traits appear to reflect a singular pattern of nasomaxillary modeling derived from their unusual dental proportions. Therefore, recent cladistic analyses have not resolved the phylogenetic history of these early hominids. Efforts to increase cladistic resolution by defining traits at greater levels of anatomical detail have instead introduced substantial phyletic error. (+info)
Environment and behavior of 2.5-million-year-old Bouri hominids.
The Hata Member of the Bouri Formation is defined for Pliocene sedimentary outcrops in the Middle Awash Valley, Ethiopia. The Hata Member is dated to 2.5 million years ago and has produced a new species of Australopithecus and hominid postcranial remains not currently assigned to species. Spatially associated zooarchaeological remains show that hominids acquired meat and marrow by 2.5 million years ago and that they are the near contemporary of Oldowan artifacts at nearby Gona. The combined evidence suggests that behavioral changes associated with lithic technology and enhanced carnivory may have been coincident with the emergence of the Homo clade from Australopithecus afarensis in eastern Africa. (+info)
Australopithecus garhi: a new species of early hominid from Ethiopia.
The lack of an adequate hominid fossil record in eastern Africa between 2 and 3 million years ago (Ma) has hampered investigations of early hominid phylogeny. Discovery of 2.5 Ma hominid cranial and dental remains from the Hata beds of Ethiopia's Middle Awash allows recognition of a new species of Australopithecus. This species is descended from Australopithecus afarensis and is a candidate ancestor for early Homo. Contemporary postcranial remains feature a derived humanlike humeral/femoral ratio and an apelike upper arm-to-lower arm ratio. (+info)