African Archaeological Review

, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 33–56 | Cite as

Recent carbon isotope research and its implications for African archaeology

  • Nikolaas J. van der Merwe
  • J. C. Vogel


A number of new developments in the carbon isotope field are reviewed, some of these having immediate and others potential application to African archaeology. Mass spectrometric analysis of13C/12C ratios in human and animal bone collagen makes it possible to reconstruct prehistoric foodwebs and to draw conclusions about dietary adaptations. Alternatively, where dietary behaviour is known, analysis of the bone of certain animal species allows for reconstruction of past environments. Ratio mass spectrometers are widely available in research institutions, and provided that the proper techniques for sample preparation are followed, this method of analysis should be of immediate use to most Africanists. It is already making an impact on African archaeology.

The development of accelerator-based or high energy mass spectrometry (HEMS) radiocarbon dating provides the potential for extending the method back to 100,000 years, particularly in the case of bone samples. Practical applications, however, are still a few years off. In the immediate future HEMS dating is likely to be applied to small samples of ages less than 50,000 years. In competition with HEMS is the use of mini-counters for conventional radiocarbon dating of small samples. This procedure is available in a few laboratories with more under development. Dating of small samples has potential applications in many areas, specifically in the direct age measurement of critical specimens as opposed to the dating of associated materials.


Carbon Isotope Mass Spectrometric Analysis Dietary Behaviour Bone Collagen Animal Bone 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Certaines innovations dans le domaine des isotopes de carbone sont révisées dans le présent article, celles-ci pouvant être appliquées à l'archéologie africaine ou y présentant des possibilités d'application.

Des analyses au spectromètre de masse du rapport13C/12C dans le collagène osseux humain et animal permettent de reconstruire des réseaux alimentaires préhistoriques et de tirer des conclusions quant aux adaptations diététiques. D'autre part, si le comportement en alimentation est connu, l'analyse des os de certaines espèces animales permet la reconstruction d'anciens milieux. Un bon nombre d'instituts de recherche possèdent déjà des spectromètres de masse, et pourvu que les méthodes appropriées de préparation d'échantillons soient suivies, la plupart des africanistes pourraient avoir recours immédiat à cette méthode d'analyse qui fait déjà sa marque en archéologie africaine.

La mise au point de la datation au carbone 14 par accélérateur ou par spectrométrie de masse à haute énergie (HEMS) permettra peut-être un élargissement du champs actuel reculant jusqu'à 100,000 ans, en particulier dans le cas d'échantillons d'os. Il faudra encore quelques années cependant avant qu'on y trouve une application pratique. Pour le futur immédiat, la datation par HEMS sera sans doute appliquée à de petits échantillons datant de moins de 50,000 ans. Les mini-compteurs, en compétition avec la HEMS, permettent la datation conventionnelle de petits échantillons par le radiocarbone. Cette méthode est praticable dans quelques laboratoires et d'autres installations sont en voie de construction. La datation de petits échantillons peut être appliquée à plusieurs domaines, en particulier à la datation direct de spécimens critiques par opposition à la datation de matériaux associés.


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Copyright information

© Cambridge University Press 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nikolaas J. van der Merwe
  • J. C. Vogel

There are no affiliations available

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