The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Addressing the osteological paradox using high resolution stable isotope analysis


1Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado Boulder, 2Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, University of Oxford

Friday 3:45-4:00, Ballroom A Add to calendar

The “osteological paradox” posits that the evaluation of health in archaeological populations is complicated by three factors: fluctuating demographic patterns, selective mortality, and variable susceptibility to illness among individuals. Selective mortality, for example, refers to the obvious reality that a skeletal sample comprises deceased individuals and underscores the potential difficulty of accurately describing the living population at any given age. Stable isotope analysis offers a potential means to address this problem by permitting both cross-sectional and longitudinal approaches. Stable isotope analysis is commonly performed on bone collagen and plotted against age at death to build a picture of dietary change and life history events such as the weaning process. In much the same way that enamel growth disruptions reveal childhood stress episodes in individuals that survived into adulthood, stable isotope analysis of teeth can provide information about survivors as well. Here, we present new high resolution stable carbon and nitrogen isotope profiles in dentine collagen of early forming permanent teeth in a sample of adults from the Medieval Nubian site of Kulubnarti. We compare these longitudinal data to cross-sectional data obtained from rib collagen to explore the relationship between survivorship and childhood diet. Results suggest that survivors had variable dietary histories, but did not follow the pattern obtained from the cross-sectional analysis. A sharp drop in nitrogen isotope ratios between the ages of 4 and 5 years evident in the cross-sectional data was not apparent in any of the survivors.

This study was funded in part by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the University of Colorado Boulder Graduate School.

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