Volume 45, Issue 5 (September 2000)
Strontium Isotope Composition of Skeletal Material Can Determine the Birth Place and Geographic Mobility of Humans and Animals
The Sr isotope composition measured in skeletal elements (e.g., bone, teeth, or antlers) can be used to infer the geographic region that an animal or human inhabited, because different regions tend to have distinct Sr isotope compositions, and natural variations in the relative abundance of Sr isotopes are not changed as Sr is processed through the food chain. Therefore, an organism that ingests Sr from one region can have a Sr isotope composition that is different than that of an organism that ingests Sr from another region. The Sr isotope composition of skeletal elements is a reflection of the concentration-weighted average of dietary Sr that was ingested while that skeletal element was produced. Because different skeletal elements grow and exchange Sr at different stages during the life times of organisms, Sr isotope analysis of different skeletal elements can be used to infer changes in geographic location at different stages in an organism's life. The Sr isotope composition measured in human teeth will reflect the average Sr isotope composition that was ingested as a child, due to the immobile nature of Sr and Ca in teeth after formation, whereas the Sr isotope composition of bone will reflect the average isotopic composition over the last ten years of life, due to continuous biological processing of Sr and Ca in bone. Inferring the average isotopic composition of dietary Sr is best done by analyzing skeletal fragments from control groups, which might be animals that have the same feeding habits as the animal in question, or, in the case of humans, analysis of close family relatives. In cases where it is not possible to construct a Sr isotope database from control groups, it becomes necessary to estimate the isotopic composition of dietary Sr based on geologic principles. We present three case studies from our research that illustrate a range of approaches: (1) results from a criminal case where a deer was illegally harvested and the location of the deer was important to establish, (2) a pilot study of commingled human remains from a burial in Vietnam, associated with the Vietnam Conflict, and (3) a study of 13th and 14th century migration of people from an archeological site in the Southwest United States.