Exploring the State and Potential of Isotope Analysis in Archaeology

A new editorial in the open access journal Frontiers in Environmental Archaeology explores the ongoing relevance of isotope analyses for exploring human-environment interactions in the past and the novel perspectives these can provide for the present.

October 12, 2022

Isotope analysis is now a commonly applied approach for exploring past human diets, environments, and mobility. Applicable to a variety of archaeological materials, from teeth to sediments, from seeds to pottery, this methodology relies on the fact that biochemical measurements can provide insights into the human past.

When compared to advances in aDNA and proteomics, it may appear that isotope analysis has reached a certain level of ‘maturity’ in archaeology. However, in a new editorial, Dr. Patrick Roberts of the isoTROPIC Research Group at the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology highlights that the method’s ‘maturity’ does not necessarily mean it is standing still.

With a look back to the very beginnings of isotope analysis in archaeology, the editorial highlights the necessity of using detailed archaeological knowledge to form research questions that can be tested with the given analytic methods.

Looking to the future, meanwhile, the paper explores how isotope analysis can continue to advance our understanding of the ways past human societies related to their environments. By expanding the use of established techniques and developing new methodologies, such as analysis of individual plant wax biomarkers or amino acids, isotope analysis promises to reveal high-resolution environmental and dietary information from understudied regions and time periods.

This editorial introduces the specialty section ‘Archaeological Isotope Analysis’ of the new journal Frontiers in Environmental Archaeology, a journal that demonstrates how multidisciplinary archaeologists studying the past can make practical contributions to planning and policy in the Anthropocene.

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