The 89th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2020)

Marching on their Stomachs: Reconstructing Dietary Life Histories of Napoleonic Soldiers through Stable Isotope Analysis


1Department of Anthropology, University of Georgia, 2Department of Anthropology, University of Central Florida, 3Department of Anatomy, Histology, and Anthropology, Vilnius University, 4Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania

April 18, 2020 , Diamond 8-9 Add to calendar

Dietary life histories can provide valuable insight into the impact of military service during warfare on soldier biology. Dietary life histories are reconstructed through stable isotope analysis of multiple skeletal tissues that capture different periods of time in an individual’s life. Military and long-term diets were reconstructed through stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of Napoleonic soldier rib and femoral bone collagen (n=43) from the mass gravesite of ŠiaurÄ—s miestelis in Vilnius, Lithuania. Mean femoral and rib δ13C ratios are -17.15‰±1.69‰ and -19.17‰±0.91‰, and mean femoral and rib δ15N ratios are 10.46‰±1.39‰ and 10.95‰ ±1.15‰. There were statistically significant differences in mean δ13C ratios (t=6.88, df=64.74, p<2.80e-09), but not δ15N ratios (t=-1.80, df=81.33, p=0.08). There were also statistically significant differences in variance in δ13C ratios (F=5.03, df=84, p=0.03), but not δ15N ratios (F=1.13, df=84, p=0.29). These results indicate that soldier diets canalized around C3 plants later in life with animal protein consumption remaining similar over the life course. Canalization around C3 plant foods is likely due to the provisioning of rations, whereas differences in animal protein consumption maintained during military service are likely an artifact of access. Historic evidence indicates officers and imperial guardsmen received higher quality rations and high socioeconomic status soldiers had the ability to supplement rations by purchasing animal products. Canalization of plant protein resources and maintenance of differences in animal protein consumption highlight the tension between military control over soldier bodies through provisioning and soldier agency through supplementation.

This research was supported by the University of Georgia’s Innovative and Interdisciplinary Research Grant for Doctoral Students, Dean’s Award, and Melissa Hague Field Study Award, and Sigma Xi’s Grants-in-Aid-of-Research.

Slides/Poster (pdf)