With National Science Foundation support, Drs. Douglas Price and James Burton will conduct three years of laboratory based research. Their goal is to develop strontium isotope analysis as a tool to address significant anthropological questions. Strontium has two isotopes and these are present in soils, plants and animals in varying ratios. This ratio is ultimately determined by the relative amounts of each isotope in underlying bedrock and because this varies by region, ratios show geographic patterning. These ratios are also reflected in human tooth and bone and if an individual lives their life in one area and eats local foods the relative amounts of strontium will bear a regional imprint. Isotope ratio analysis is a potentially valuable tool because ratios in different parts of the dental and skeletal system turn over at different rates and thus provide locational information for different times in an individual's life. Teeth for example have no turnover and the ratio is set at the time of formation. In bones strontium is replaced during an individual's lifetime but the rate varies by skeletal element. Likewise, permanent teeth are formed at different times. Thus it is theoretically possible to trace an individual's movement over major spans of their life and to determine, for example what percentage of a skeletal population were born locally and what percentage were immigrants. Migration, residence and marriage patterns can be examined in this way. Drs. Price and Burton will use three well controlled archaeological skeletal populations to refine and develop the technique. They will establish intrinsic isotopic variability in populations and relate this to geological diversity. They will develop criteria for establishing significant threshold values for migrant individuals. The case studies come from the late Neolithic of Central Europe (Bell Beaker populations), Mesoamerica (the Classic period of Highland Mexico) and Iceland. They will also examine the possibility of using lead and alkaline-earth abundances in skeletal tissues to pursue this same goal. This research is extremely important because these tools, if refined, will be useful in a wide range of archaeological situations.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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University of Wisconsin Madison
United States
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