Palaeodiet at Eton College Rowing Course, Buckinghamshire: isotopic changes in human diet in the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman periods throughout the British Isles

Abstract

Through isotopic investigations of directly dated human remains recovered from the Eton College Rowing Course, we examine changes in diet from the Neolithic to the Roman period. The human isotope signatures point to a diet based on C3 terrestrial resources. A significant correlation is visible between human δ13C values and time, but no such trend is observed in δ15N. The animal isotope data from Eton are unevenly distributed, making it difficult to determine if the human values mirror the animal values. To assess whether the results from Eton are typical, we compare our results to isotope data from other British sites dating from the Neolithic to the Roman period. Across this time period, we see a strong correlation between the mean δ15N of the humans and that of the main domesticated herbivores, with an offset of ∼4.5‰ between the two. Thus, the changes in the human isotope values are likely linked to changes in the isotopic signatures of the herbivores rather than changes in the protein composition of human diets. By contrast, no clear temporal relationship is observed between the mean δ13C of the humans and that of the main domesticated herbivores, with an offset of ∼1.4‰ between the two. There is, however, a weak correlation observed between the mean δ13C of the humans and that of the cattle, which may account for some of the variation in human δ13C values between sites. The absence of a strong correlation between mean human and animal δ13C suggests that the primary factor influencing human δ13C values between sites is dietary composition. The lack of co-variation between δ13C and δ15N is likely to reflect the different representation of dietary macronutrients. Given that the nitrogen results suggest that the animal protein consumption patterns are similar across sites, the human δ13C variation between sites is likely to reflect the plant portion of the diet.

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Notes

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    Note that Yarnton humans are Neolithic/Bronze Age.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Bethan Charles, Emma Evans, Jennifer Tripp and Paul Harvey for help with selecting and sampling bones. Peter Ditchfield is thanked for help with mass spectrometry. Tarmac Ltd is thanked for giving permission for the reproduction of Fig. 2. The anonymous reviewers are thanked for their comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. EL would like to thank Darwin College for financial support; RS would like to thank the Royal Society for financial support.

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Correspondence to Rhiannon E. Stevens.

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Stevens, R.E., Lightfoot, E., Allen, T. et al. Palaeodiet at Eton College Rowing Course, Buckinghamshire: isotopic changes in human diet in the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman periods throughout the British Isles. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 4, 167–184 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-012-0089-0

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Keywords

  • Bone collagen
  • Subsistence
  • Trophic level
  • Palaeodiet
  • Isotope