Scientific analysis of human remains

You have seen in the course in the Scientific Finds Analysis step this week the range of ways in which finds are analysed. I wanted to mention one form of analysis I have been involved with that relates to those techniques employed at Portus.

Human remains are also analysed using other scientific techniques such as carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis which uses the ratios of heavier and lighter atoms in bones as a way of exploring the diet of people at Portus, or analysis of oxygen and strontium isotopes in teeth which can identify the location an individual was living in childhood (when their teeth were forming). Ancient DNA can sometimes be extracted from human remains to identify genetic relationships, or genetic material surviving from past bacterial infection to identify diseases.

We have used similar techniques in the past to identify family groups in a Neolithic cemetery (c. 2600 BC) in eastern Germany where strontium isotopes also showed the adult females all grew up elsewhere (they were exogamous). They were from another community, perhaps 70km away, creating a kinship network between the two communities, a helpful strategy at times of hardship. Unfortunately, these families appear to have met a violent end as revealed by the pattern of injuries on their bones.

Haak, W., Brandt, G., de Jong, H., Meyer, C., Ganslmeier, R., Heyd, V., Hawkesworth, C., Pike, A.W.G., Meller, H. and Alt, K. (2008) Ancient DNA, strontium isotopes and osteological analyses shed light on social and kinship organization of the later stone age. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105, (47), 18226-18231. (doi:10.1073/pnas.0807592105).