The distinction between freshwater- and terrestrial-based diets: methodological concerns and archaeological applications of sulphur stable isotope analysis

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Sulphur isotopes in archaeological bone collagen are not routinely analysed in palaeodietary studies. Here we investigate the potential contribution that sulphur isotope analysis can provide toward the study of ancient human diet and economy, with particular emphasis on the distinction between freshwater and terrestrial consumers. For material from the Late Bronze Age site of Chicha in the south-western Eurasian forest-steppe, sulphur isotopes effectively separate freshwater and terrestrial animal food resources. The sulphur isotope data coupled with nitrogen isotope values from Chicha reflect a dietary reliance upon freshwater animal protein (fish) for the Late Bronze Age inhabitants. In contrast, sulphur isotope values for freshwater and terrestrial potential food species from the Eneolithic site of Bil’shivtsi in western Ukraine were indistinguishable, demonstrating that d34S values cannot always be relied upon to identify freshwater and terrestrial consumers. The data from this study support the adoption of d34S analysis as a standard component of palaeodietary studies; apart from its potential to distinguish freshwater from terrestrial consumers, it can provide supplementary dietary information not evident from the carbon and nitrogen isotope data. In addition, certain indices are considered that may be used to assess the validity of sulphur isotope data, as currently exist for carbon and nitrogen. According to the analysis of modern collagen samples, N:S appears to be a broad indicator of collagen sulphur isotope quality. However, more work needs to be done to establish an effective means by which highly-altered sulphur isotope values can be identified and thereby removed from consideration.
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Privat, Karen
O'Connell, Tamsin
Hedges, Robert
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Journal Article
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UNSW Faculty