The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

Paleoclimatological reconstruction using δ18O analysis in incremental sections of human dentine: a preliminary study using a catastrophic cemetery sample


1Department of Archaeology, Durham University, 2NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, 3Department of Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford

Thursday 1:30-1:45, Galleria North Add to calendar

Understanding paleoclimatological change is an overlooked approach in archaeology to interpreting past cultural adaptations. Although stable oxygen isotope analysis (δ18O) is gaining popularity in the bioarchaeological community as a technique for understanding patterns of mobility and weaning, no studies have adequately demonstrated the viability of using human remains as a proxy for climate change. The East Smithfield Black Death Cemetery (MIN86) in London, England provides a unique opportunity for climate research, as the individuals interred belong to a catastrophic assemblage with a narrow, well-documented date range (1348-1350 C.E.). The beginning of the Late Middle Ages is documented by contemporary sources as experiencing disastrous weather patterns that caused the Great Famine (1315-1317 C.E.) and predated the arrival of the Black Death to London in 1348.

In this study, a methodology is adapted and tested to measure δ18O in incremental sections of dentine from the permanent teeth of eight individuals. Sections of dentine (n=116) from eight maxillary canines and two mandibular third molars provide isotopic values in which diachronic shifts in mean surface temperature (°C) can be observed. 87Sr/86Sr and δ­18O from the enamel provides comparative data. Problems regarding contamination, timescale resolution, and the introduction of error when converting δ18O to °C are discussed; solutions for these problems are proposed. This pilot study demonstrates that short-term climate change can be inferred using incremental section of dentine as a paleoclimatological proxy, and highlights the potential uses of this isotopic technique for future research.

This study was funded by the NERC Isotope Geosciences Steering Facility (Grant IP-118-0510) and the Rosemary Cramp Fund.

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