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Human morphology, health, diet and mobility

Physical anthropology describes a research focus that deals with human remains from archaeological contexts – usually skeletal finds from burials or cremations. The aim of the examination of the skeletal material is to collect basic biological data such as sex, age at death, size and proportions, activity patterns specific to everyday life, diagnosable diseases, and, if possible, the cause of death. In addition, statements can also be made on lifestyle, diet, disease burden and social and migration behaviour. Depending on the context, even a spatial and temporal comparison between populations is possible. The limitations of the methods are closely linked to the preservation and completeness of the finds.

In addition to macroscopic analysis and examination using imaging techniques, bioarchaeometric research at CEZA uses stable isotope analyses to reconstruct the diet and mobility of humans and animals in the past. This approach provides information on subsistence strategies, age, sex and status-dependent access to food, the role of human mobility in space and time, residential rules, seasonal migration in the context of animal husbandry and many other aspects of everyday life in the past.

Mainly carbon, nitrogen, strontium and oxygen isotope analyses are used. Stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes in bone collagen are related to proteins ingested with food. They provide information on the proportions of animal and plant-derived foods, of marine or freshwater fish, on the type of photosynthesis of the consumed plants (C3 or C4) and on their site growing conditions. In addition, the stable carbon isotope ratios of the bioapatite of bones or teeth as a mirror of the total diet contribute to diet reconstructions.

For the investigation of mobility, strontium isotope analyses carried out on dental enamel are of particular interest. The isotopic composition of the trace element strontium is related to the geological conditions in the region where a human or animal spends its first years of life. Oxygen isotope ratios, which can also be determined in dental enamel, reflect temperature, altitude and distance from the sea. These parameters influence the precipitation water, which is taken up by humans and animals via drinking water and food, incorporated into teeth and bones and can provide information about seasonality or a possibly non-local origin.

Questions of diet and mobility of humans and animals are of interest in archaeological and historical projects worldwide from the Paleolithic to modern times and have to be specified within the specific contexts and questions.