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Ancient bone fragments help describe diet, health of Saharan ancestors

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Danielle Gorree
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« on: May 26, 2014, 09:39:30 pm »

Ancient bone fragments help describe diet, health of Saharan ancestors
Mar 27, 2014

Ancient bone fragments help describe diet, health of Saharan ancestors

The diet and journeys taken by those who lived in the Sahara Desert thousands of years ago are being analysed through their teeth and bones.

Our knowledge of past civilisations is gleaned from what is left behind the shards of pots, traces of dwellings and goods from graves. And just as these are clues to the everyday behaviours of individuals long gone, so too are their bodily remains. Locked in their teeth and bones is information that scientists can use to reveal how they lived, such as the food they ate and the distances they travelled.

Dr Ronika Power and Dr Marta Mirazon Lahr from Cambridge's Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES) with Dr Tamsin O'Connell from the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research are reading these 'biographies in bone' in the skeletons and skulls of people who lived up to 8,000 years ago in the Sahara Desert and across the African continent.

The remains are among those of 18,000 individuals housed in the University of Cambridge's Duckworth Laboratory one of the world's largest repositories of skulls, skeletons, death masks, mummies, hair bundles and blood samples, including a jawbone tens of thousands of years old. Bones from 19th-century plague pits sit alongside axe-cleaved skulls from Iron Age battles, together with the cast of fossil of an early hominin who lived around 3 million years ago, and medically important skeletons distorted by diseases that, with today's drugs, would never have the chance to run their course.

To describe the ancient Saharan diets, the researchers are measuring the levels of chemical entities called isotopes in the remains. Biological tissues are reservoirs for elements such as carbon and oxygen, which arrive in the body through the food we eat and the environment we live in, and which have variants (isotopes) that can be measured.

"Tooth enamel is formed in the very early years of life and the chemical fingerprints within it don't change throughout life," explained O'Connell. "So whatever isotope signals the teeth contain are a result of the geographical area where individuals spent their childhood and the food and drink they consumed there."
One of the pre-Dynastic Egyptians analysed in the project. Credit: University of Cambridge

Bone, on the other hand, is 'remodelled' throughout life most of a healthy adult's skeleton is made in the last ten years of their life. "Isotopes in bone therefore tell you where the person was living in the years leading up to their death."

Isotope 'signatures', together with the geographic distribution of the shape and size of skulls, can therefore be used to look for evidence.
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