Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 399–426 | Cite as

Inferring Human Behaviors from Isotopic Analyses of Rat Diet: a Critical Review and Historical Application

  • Eric J. GuiryEmail author
  • Barry C. Gaulton


Rat (Rattus spp.) bone collagen stable isotope values are often assumed to reflect an average of food stuffs that were available to archaeological populations. This paper considers the feasibility of using stable isotope evidence from rat remains as a source of proxy information for human food-related social, economic, and sensorial behaviors. First, a literature review of archaeological and modern ecological rat isotope work reveals that, while rat dietary signatures are often a reasonable proxy for human food waste, they will not always record an unbiased average of foods which are available in a given environment. Second, an overview of ethological, biological, and environmental factors that can influence rat diets is given from the perspective of archaeological bone chemistry, to help identify factors that require explicit and critical consideration when rat stable isotope data is taken as a proxy for human food-related behaviors. Finally, rat stable isotope values are considered to provide new evidence about the social and economic responses of an important historical English fishing community at Ferryland (CgAf-02) to conflict and political turmoil at the turn of the eighteenth century. These results also highlight how information on rat diets can provide a counterpoint to other common faunal isotope approaches that focus on dogs and pigs as a proxy for human dietary behaviors.


Stable isotope Diet Human behavior Rat Historical archaeology Fishery Smell 



At Memorial University, Matthew Howse, Arthur Clausnitzer, Peter Pope, Alison Harris, and Vaughan Grimes are thanked for their generous time and guidance during sampling and interpretation of Ferryland rat remains. Eric Tourigny, Stéphane Noël, and Lisa Hodgetts provided valuable zooarchaeological assistance. Michael Richards and Paul Szpak provided laboratory space, analytical equipment, and statistical advice. This work has also benefited significantly from the editorial assistance of Shannon Montgomery. We also thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  2. 2.Department of ArchaeologyMemorial UniversitySt. John’sCanada

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