Speaker: Christine A. M. France, Smithsonian Institution
Topic: Soldiers, Slaves, and Cannibalism: Stable Isotope Indications of Historic Life in North America
Date: Monday, March 21, 2022
Time: 6:45 Virtual Social, 7:15 pm Presentation
Location: See Zoom invite in email on March 11 and 17 (sign up)
Abstract: Archaeological studies often include human remains, consisting of only bones and teeth, whose identity has been lost to time. However, with the right biochemical proxies, bones and teeth can yield information about diet, provenance, and demographics of these unknown individuals. The Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute Stable Isotope Mass Spectrometry Laboratory applies stable isotopes to North American archaeological remains in an effort to better understand the life history and lifestyles of 17th , 18th and 19th century individuals. Examination of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen stable isotopes from three case studies highlight insights into dietary grain components, geographical provenance and affiliations, meat consumption, and marine dietary inputs. Soldiers from the American Civil War and post-Civil War periods (ca. 1860-1885) show oxygen isotope values indicative of cross-geographical allegiances. Comparative African populations from Ghana show carbon and oxygen isotope values unique to their region, providing means to distinguish enslaved African Americans that were recent arrivals in the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade (late 1700’s). Nitrogen and oxygen isotope values provide insight into the social class and provenance of a young girl cannibalized during the harsh years leading up to Jamestown Colony’s near failure in 1610. All of these examples emphasize the power of this technique to offer some identity to otherwise anonymous individuals, and to provide new insights into our history.