Isotope Research Group

The Isotope Research group in the Department of Archaeology is committed to applying stable isotope methods within multidisciplinary research programmes that are focused on human palaeoclimates, palaeoenvironments, palaeodiets and palaeomobility. The laboratory facilities support the diverse projects of PhD students, postdoctoral researchers, and visiting scholars, ranging from the adaptations of early Homo sapiens and its hominin relatives to the causes of Pleistocene and Holocene megafaunal extinctions, and from the migration history and modern ecology of wildebeest in East Africa to the social and environmental impacts early rice agriculture in Asia.

The group works on applying bulk isotopic methodologies to archaeological materials, including bones, teeth, sediments, and charred plant material, within the framework of contextualized, well-informed archaeological questions. It also studies single compound biomarkers linked to past human environments and activities, including plant wax biomarkers and fire biomarkers. Alongside novel archaeological applications, the group is also committed to the production of foundational modern baseline research to track variability in different ecological contexts. These baselines can then be used to help understand isotopic results from the past.

Isotope Research Group Projects

Biomolecular history of South Asia

Project members: Ayushi Nayak, Patrick Roberts, Nicole Boivin, Michael Petraglia

South Asia is, and has long been, a region of tremendous environmental and cultural diversity. The region is home to numerous languages belonging to several major language families, as well as diverse religious, ethnic and subsistence groups. These diverse groups occupy a broad range of ecological zones, from arid deserts to mountains, plains and tropical forests. How this tremendous diversity was created is a question that has challenged a range of disciplines.

This project seeks to open a new window onto South Asia’s past through the application of biomolecular methods, including isotope analysis and investigations of ancient dental samples. These methods hold great potential for providing new insights into South Asian prehistory, in particular concerning major cultural transitions and their link to changes in human mobility, diet and population composition.

Late Pleistocene-to-Holocene Ecological Change and High-Altitude Human Adaptations in Lesotho, Southern Africa

Project members: Robert Patalano, Patrick Roberts

Investigation of Homo sapiens’ early expansions into high altitude African environments is changing how we perceive our species’ adaptions to various ‘extreme’ Pleistocene climates and habitats. Given the historic emphasis placed on sequences from Southern African archaeological sites at or near the coast, it is now crucial to complement such studies with those from the continent’s topographically variable and biologically diverse interior.

This project seeks to open a new window into Lesotho’s high-altitude settings through the application of compound-specific plant wax biomarkers, mainly normal (n-) alkanes and n-alkanoic acids. The use of wax biomarkers in upland archaeological sites of Lesotho offers opportunities to study past distributions of C3 and C4 vegetation and the impact of changes in temperature and precipitation on plant and animal resources from about 60,000 years ago into the present.

Because these high-altitude settings were susceptible to climate change, cold and dry conditions, and patchy resource distributions, the archaeology and paleoecology of Lesotho provide important perspectives regarding major adaptive challenges humans faced, as well as population interactions along the Maloti-Drakensberg mountain range.

Reconstruction of Climate, Vegetation and Fire Across Palaeolithic Transitions in the Indian Subcontinent

Project members: Deepak Jha, Patrick Roberts, Michael Petraglia

The Indian subcontinent occupies a key geographic location at the southern mid-point of Asia. With respect to human evolutionary studies, the subcontinent deserves consideration as a critical area for exploring hominin dispersal processes, particularly the migration of Homo sapiens during the Late Pleistocene. During the Middle and Late Pleistocene, there is emerging archaeological evidence for major technological transitions, changes in cultural adaptations, and varying settlement and subsistence patterns. Unfortunately, the climatic and environmental contexts of these cultural shifts remain poorly understood.

This project will seek to obtain novel information about the environments that hominins were occupying in India, allowing us to examine technological and behavioural changes. A range of multi-proxy palaeoenvironmental analyses will be conducted, including bulk isotopic analysis of soil organic matter (δ13C and δ15N values), compound-specific isotopic analysis (δ13C and δD values) of extracted leaf waxes, and soil carbonate isotopic analysis (δ13C and δ18O values). Palaeofire activities will be investigated using the extraction of macroscopic charcoal particles and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from sediments collected from the archaeological sites preserved in different parts of the Indian subcontinent.

Isotope Analysis and Middle and Upper Palaeolithic Hunting in Germany

Project members: Phoebe Heddell-Stevens

The behaviour of large herbivores has long played a major role in shaping the lifeways of those hominin groups who hunted them. While a vast body of research exists on the subsistence strategies of Middle and Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers in Europe, there is a critical lack of direct evidence for the palaeoecology of key prey-species at a local level, or on timescales applicable to those of human activity. This research project seeks to address that gap through the application of stable isotope analysis to faunal remains from archaeological sites.

This involves multiple stable isotope analysis (δ13C, δ18O and 87Sr/86Sr) of sequentially sampled large herbivore tooth enamel to reconstruct diet, range and migration patterns of different species in Germany. Analysis of sequentially sampled enamel provides higher resolution data at sub-annual timescales relating directly to the period of human activity at a site. This data is then used to gain deeper insight into the subsistence behaviour of the hominins that exploited these animals, contributing to ongoing debates around hominin adaptive flexibility in the context of Late Pleistocene in western Europe and beyond.

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