The major question of this research involves migration and human movement in ancient Mexico. Dr. T. Douglas Price and colleagues from Mexico, the U.S., and Canada will be investigating evidence for the movement of individuals using isotopic tracers. We will utilize new techniques involving the chemistry of prehistoric bone that allow direct evaluation of past human movement. Just as medical doctors use isotopes to follow pathways in your body, strontium isotopes in human bones and teeth allow archaeologists to follow past peoples in their movement across a region. For the first time in the New World, this research will use a combination of three isotopes (strontium, oxygen, and lead) for enhanced resolution of migration evidence. This combination should provide powerful means for identifying both migrants and places of origin.

The principle of the method is straightforward. The isotopes of the environment of the place of birth are permanently fixed in tooth enamel. Bone, however, rebuilds itself continuously through a person's life and the isotopes in bone will represent the environment of the place of death. A different between the enamel isotopes and the place of death isotopes means that the person must have moved from one place to another during life. In some cases it is possible to determine where that person came from. Strontium, lead, and oxygen isotopes reflect different kinds of information on the geology and climate of the place of birth. Thus the use of several isotopes in combination will improve our ability to identify migrants and to search for their place of origin.

In terms of intellectual merit, this project will provide new information on the nature and scale of human movement in prehispanic Mesoamerica and on relationships between different peoples and cultures in this region. We hope to provide insight on the origins of elite, commoners, and sacrificial victims, of the nature of urban growth, political relationships between major centers, and the nature of the relationship between Teotihuacan and the rest of Classic Mesoamerica. The study will also document the application of isotopic methods for the investigation of human migration. At the same time we are developing new methods for the proveniencing of prehistoric human remains.

The broader impact of study will be to demonstrate the application of new scientific methods to old archaeological questions and involve a number of young scholars in the process. The project is cooperative one among senior scientists, younger colleagues, and graduate students. This is an international research project involving scholars from throughout North America. Our work will also interface with local archaeologists in Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. The research will result in at least one PhD dissertation as well as publications in a variety of journals including Latin American Antiquity and the Journal of Archaeological Science, among others.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
John E. Yellen
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Wisconsin Madison
United States
Zip Code