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Archaeological bone lipids as palaeodietary markers

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Publication details

JournalRapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry
DateAccepted/In press - 6 Jan 2015
DatePublished (current) - 26 Jul 2015
Issue number7
Number of pages8
Pages (from-to)611-618
Original languageEnglish


Stable isotope analysis of archaeological and fossil bone samples can provide important insights into past environments, ecologies and diets. Previous studies have focused on stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes in bone collagen, or carbon isotopes in bone mineral (bioapatite). Carbon isotope analysis of lipids from archaeological bone has received much less attention, partly due to the lack of suitable methodologies allowing sufficient recovery of compounds for structural and isotopic characterisation. Here we show that lipids can be easily and reliably recovered from archaeological bone using a modified protocol, and that these provide complementary dietary information to other bone components.

Human and animal bones were obtained from a variety of archaeological contexts. Lipids were sequentially extracted using solvent extraction (dichloromethane/methanol), followed by acidified methanol extraction (methanol/H2SO4). The lipids were then analysed by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) and gas chromatography/combustion/isotope ratio mass spectrometry (GC/C/IRMS).

Appreciable amounts of endogenous lipid were recovered from archaeological bone. Importantly, a comparison between compound-specific and bulk collagen isotopic data shows that archaeological bone lipids reflect dietary input and can be used to distinguish between marine and terrestrial consumers, as well as between C3 and C4 plant consumers. Furthermore, the presence of essential fatty acids directly incorporated from diet to bone may provide additional palaeodietary information.

Our findings suggest that archaeological bone lipids are a hitherto untapped resource of dietary information that offer additional insights to those gained from other isotopic analyses of bone.

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