Research on paleodiet using the chemical analysis of bone remains. Trajectory and perspectives

Eva Leticia Brito Benítez* Centro INAH Estado de México. English translation by Marianna Pool Westgaard, Centro de Estudios Lingüísticos y Literarios, El Colegio de México.

Eating is a physiological act necessary for survival. It is the action through which a living creature introduces into its body organic and inorganic substances which will give it the nutrients it requires to function adequately. Human beings, as members of the animal kingdom, must satisfy their biological needs, but as members of a community they must also be guided by patterns of conduct, organization and ideology acquired through their powers of adaptation throughout history. These patterns come to be more important than basic physiological or spiritual satisfation, turning into social imperatives which demand a cultural response that will guarantee the cohesion, integrity and the adequate functioning of the society to which they belong.1

Dietary habits are determined by a system related to the availability, acquisition and distribution of the natural resources which are considered to be proper foodstuffs and which make up the community’s diet. This system includes the environment, social and political organization and those cultural and ideological patterns which condition the beliefs, preferences, restrictions and uses of food.2

The reconstruction of dietary patterns in ancient populations at different times and places in prehistory provides us with elements for analyzing the power which different sectors of society had for obtaining resources and the close link of these resources to social stratification. This reconstruction also helps us understand the agricultural development and the technological advancement of a society, its networks of commercial exchange and its population dynamics. The diet of long-ago societies also furnishes us with data for the evaluation of individual and collective conditions of nutrition and health, a central theme in bio-anthropological and archeological studies.

The first studies on paleodiet were done from a fundamentally ecological point of view. They were very useful, because the authors centered their results around studies of the environment and on agricultural technology. The method is still prevalent today. Among many others, the studies by Kowalewski may be cited.3 Kowalewski investigated Prehispanic settlement patterns in the Valley of Oaxaca. Also deserving of mention is Flannery’s work,4 which consisted of coordinating a wide-spread investigation of living conditions among the inhabitants of the caves of Guilá Naquitz, from 8000 B.C. through the Post-classic period in this same area. Another example is Ivanhoe’s,5 which had to do with the relationship between diet and demography among the population of Texcoco during the Spanish Conquest.

Other studies take this line up anew and also incorporate the results of studies by physical anthropologists on skeletal remains, because morphological and osteometric observations have been shown to be good indicators of nutritional and health information. In this regard, there are epidemiological studies by Cohen and Armélagos (1984) and Martin, Goodman and Armélagos (1991), which examine the individual as an integral part of the environment in a particular social and cultural context. The topic of the relationship among eating, infectious processes and malnutrition is broached by several authors.6 For his part, Brothwell7 studied the health of individuals as related to their occupational activities.8 Saul applies a method of multifactorial analysis as he integrates data from skeletal features such as age, sex and genetics with information about the ecological and socio-cultural context.

From Saul’s ideas, several research projects9 based on the same premises arose in Mexico, in which living conditions among Mesoamerican populations is approached using an integrated analytical methodology.10

In recent years, studies of diet and its repercussions on living conditions have included the chemical analysis of skeletal remains. This methodological proposal arose from the discovery of the bio- and geo-chemical cycle of strontium and its effect on animal tissue (see figure), as a result of research done on the negative effects of strontium 90 (Sr90) on human health during World War II.11

The pioneers

Toots and Voorhies are thought to be the first researchers to use these procedures as an anthropological tool for the reconstruction of paleodiets. They presented their results concerning the level of strontium in bone samples of herbivorous animals in 1965. A few years later, they were followed by other authors,12 whose goal was to prove the effectiveness of the technique and to examine the varying consumption of animal protein and vegetable matter by determining the concentration of strontium and the relationship between levels of strontium and calcium (Sr: Ca).

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The basic premise in these studies was that organisms absorb strontium in quantities which vary inversely with their rank within the food chain. For example, plants derive it directly from the invironment and herbivorous animals get it from plants, but in smaller quantities; carnivores, consequently, assimilate even less strontium that herbivores; omnivores fall between the two extremes.

The trophic effect related to the levels of strontium in tissue is reinforced by the processes of interaction between this mineral and calcium, because both are alkaline earth elements and they possess similar chemical attributes and function similarly in physiology. Like calcium, most of the strontium absorbed is deposited in bone tissue by ionic substitution. The level of these elements is regulated by internal discriminatory mechanisms which have been developed in the digestive and urinary tracts in mammals. These mechanisms generally relate the absorption of the first to the secretion of the second.

The metabolical principles behind these minerals have also provided a variety of applications other than the reconstruction of individual diets, such as the evaluation of diachronic change in dietary patterns and differences in diet among different sectors of a population, which aids in identifying social stratification. An example of this is found in Brown’s doctoral dissertation,13 in which he quantified the levels of strontium in human bone samples from the sites of Tierras Largas and Huitzo, in Oaxaca. His results showed differences among the members of different social strata: people of higher rank had a diet that was more plentiful in animal protein than those considered to be of lower rank.

Worth note is Margaret J. Schoeninger’s study,14 in which she analyzed 35 skeletal samples of inhabitants in the Formative period, hypothesizing that levels of strontium, and consequently the consumption of vegetables, was related to an individual’s social stratus. The author used the techniques of atomic-absorption spectrometry and neutron activation, and she related the results of this analysis to the the quantity and quality of objects deposited in the tombs as funeral offerings. Subjects having low mineral content in their bones were found with pieces in jade, while those having high levels were only buried with ceramic pieces. Schoeninger concluded that the population in general consumed a diet without serious nutritional deficiencies, but higher-ranking individuals consumed more meat, while the rest of the population ate mostly vegetables.

The most important technical observations have to do with the behavior of strontium: a) strontium is deposited in bone tissue in direct proportion to the amount of food consumed; b) once it becomes crystalized, it can only be removed as a result of osteoclastic activity and perhaps only while the person is alive; c) it is distributed in different types of bone; d) there is no consensus about possible differences in concentration between adults and children; e) its quantity is conditioned by individual metabolic features closely linked to diet; and, f) the amount of strontium found in bones varies among different species, but at a lesser order of magnitude than do the differences produced by diet. The author thus points out one of the most striking aspects of strontium: its chemical stability, which keeps it from being seriously affected by diagenesis,15 a process that has to do with changes in bone composition due to conditions of burial.16 The technical bases which Schoeninger developed validated the hypothesis of the pioneers in this field, who had postulated as fundamental the idea of the stability of strontium in the skeleton, even after death, a property which guaranteed its usefulness as an indicator of vegetable consumption.17

Towards the end of the sixties, a second theoretical and methodological current arose, which emphasized the need to delve more deeply into the diagenetic process so that dietary patterns could be interpreted more objectively. This resulted in diagenetic research receiving a strong push in the next decade.

The eighties and early nineties

This period began with a discussion of the validity of results derived in the pioneering studies. Sillen18 confronted the opinion held by Parker and Toots,19 who thought strontium to be totally reliable, to the one held by Elias,20 who discarded this possibility. Sillen evaluated the levels of strontium in carnivorous and herbivorous animal remains and found almost no difference between them; he later compared the to human bones and found these to fall into the same parameters as the others. Having obtained these results, the author did not adopt a clear position with respect to the reliability of these procedures but concluded that “they may be effective in certain circumstances, when their application does not fall outside the time of post mortem changes over which we have no control”.21 As a last point, he proposed that other analyses should be previously applied to animal remains in order to detect diagenetic effects before the application of the strontium assay, thus obtaining more objective interpretations regarding human dietary practices.

Sillen’s observation is a clear example of a new tendency which arose at the beginning of the eighties and continues up to the present, which is fundamentally based on knowing more about diagenetic effects. At that moment, a large number of studies began to focus on recognizing and defining this phenomenon, identifying its causes and discovering its effects on animal tissue. Among these were Waldron, 1981, 1983; Lambert et al., 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1989, 1991; Katzenberg, 1984; Nelson and Sauer, 1984; Pate and Brown, 1985; Nelson et al., 1986; Piepenbrink, 1986; Kyle, 1986; Klepinger et al., 1986; Edward, 1987; Bryne and Parris, 1987; Pate and Hutton, 1988; Sillen, 1989; Garland, 1989; Weiner et al., 1989; Newesely, 1989; Tuross, 1989; Tuross et al., 1989; Grupe and Piepenbrink, 1989; Piepenbrink, 1989; Williams, 1989; Schoeninger et al., 1989; Pate et al., 1989, 1991; Rae et al., 1989; Sillen, 1989; Radosevich, 1989; Pleiffer, 1992; Micozzi and Sledzik, 1992; and Schmidt-Schultz and Schultz, 1999.

This large production contributed new technical and methodological proposals for the analysis the antemortem state of, and changes in, bone material (a biogenetic process) and their influence on diagenesis. Some proposals had to do with the spatial distribution of bone minerals, the relationship between mineral and organic loss, the ionic substitution of hydroxyapatite as a product of the environment and the influence of physical and chemical factors (pH, temperature, soil porosity, etc.). New ways of identifying strontium which was originally from bone tissue were also promoted; this helped researchers to get to know bone structure more precisely and to observe diagenetic changes, detect contamination and eliminate it.22 These methods were even useful in the search for techniques for dating bone remains.23

It was just at this time that the incorporation of more chemicals into experiments was proposed, for the purpose of pinpointing the origin of food consumed more precisely, a method known as multi-element analysis. For example, magnesium, manganese and vanadium were included, along with strontium and calcium, as indicators of vegetable consumption, while zinc, selenium, copper and molybdenum helped detect animal protein. However, multi-element analysis continued to focus primarily on strontium levels and their ratio with respect to calcium.

In spite of the fact that this new method seemed to have several advantages over the study of single elements, it actually presented more problems: 1) there is an increase in the number of problems to be solved when the number of elements increases; 2) the concentration of each element in bones varies according to specific biogenic mechanisms; 3) the diagenetic process affects each mineral differently; and 4) it would be necessary to know about and control for these changes. These factors spurred parallel research into the diagenetic process even more.24

An example of the first studies that incorporated multi-element analysis is the one by Fornaciari,25 whose principal objective was to understand the dietary habits of a group of Roman inhabitants in the 4th century, and thus to contribute to defining their social status. The authors measured the content of calcium, strontium, zinc and lead using the technique of atomic absorption, in two series of skeletons found in Villa de Giordani, in Rome. The first series came from a family buried in a large mausoleum and the second from the basilica which was contiguous to the mausoleum. Both constructions were built anonymously and dated from the origins of Christianity.

The results showed larger quantities of zinc and lead in the subjects from the mausoleum, as well as lower levels of strontium. The level of these minerals in the other group was exactly the opposite of the first one. Fornaciari and his co-authors concluded that this phenomenon was due to the fact that the family in the mausoleum, belonging to a higher social rank —as shown by the fact that they had a space built ex–professo for burials— systematically ate meat and large quantities of wine, served in metal vessels containing lead. At the same time, the individuals in the basilica, where poorer people were laid to rest, consumed little meat and wine and basically consumed a diet of vegetable origin. After reaching these conclusions, the authors emphasized the need to continue applying these techniques to complement our understanding of differing economies in groups that no longer exist, thus declaring themselves in favor of incorporating new research alternatives into the anthropologist’s and historian’s investigative arsenal.

Ezzo is another author who attempted to throw light on mechanisms of contamination caused the the behavior of different minerals.26 He studied 82 samples of bone remains in animals from La Ventana Cave and compared them to the present-day fauna of the Sonoran Desert. Using the technique of plasma emmision, he analyzed levels of eleven elements: aluminum, barium, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, sodium, phosporous, strontium and zinc. Among his most important conclusions, the fact that barium is more sensitive than strontium as an indicator of paleodiet stood out, although he was quick to point out that the study was done on remains from an arid area. Another surprising conclusion was that aluminum, potassium, sodium and manganese were all products of bone contamination through oxidation.

The technique of multi-element analysis was often used throughout the nineties in many parts of the world. Among other studies of this type are those by González-Reimers and his colleagues,27 in which a comparative analysis of the dietary practices among aborigenes of the Canary Islands were done; and by Aufderheide and others, who studied Guanche groups and inhabitants of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.28

Studies with a different approach also arose, such as the one by Moore and colleagues,29 in which they advocated the avoidance of conservation and restoration techniques which could affect bone composition. For this study they used 20 samples from Iron Age skeletons belonging to the Mecklenberg Collection of the Peabody Museum at Harvard, which had been previously solidified with synthetic polyvinyl acetate. Their goal was to eliminate the solidifier and investigate possibiliies of changes in organic and mineral composition, which they did by chemically cleaning the bones with acetone. Although the consolidant was easily removed and no traces of contamination were detected, this process led to partial loss of the sample.

As a result of this experience, the authors observed that consolidants present several disadvantages: a) in some cases they can contaminate bones and change the results of chemical analyses; b) when the bone solidifies, the same thing happens to contaminating elements like roots, soil particles, insect fragments, etc.; c) the treatments are theoretically reversible, but in practice this is not true in all cases; d) treatments for eliminating consolidants are lengthy, costly and should not be used on small samples or with weakened and/or fragmented bone; and e) in museums, bone remains are solidified on several different occasions, with the use of diverse substances which must be diluted to different concentrations and which are not all compatible among themselves.

Moore and his team acentuated the need to select and separate bone samples before applying solidification treatments in situ, so that they could be examined later. Finally, they underlined the fact that human remains, thanks to the potential information they contain, are especially significant as links to the cultural past and to ecological relatios, an argument which must be taken into account in preservation and restoration programs.

This period continued to surprise everyone with its methodological innovations. It was at this time that stable isotope analysis (of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulphur) was also introduced into anthropological studies on diet and nutrition, although it was suggested years earlier by Vogel and van der Merwe, as well as by DeNiro and Epstein.30 The theoretical bases for this type of analysis were set down by Robert Hall in 1967. When he was working on dating techniques, he observed that corn and other vegetables that were high in carbon 13 produced anomalies in radiocarbon dating.31

The fundamental premise underlying this procedure is that “you are what you eat”, given that animal tissue has an isotopic composition arising from the simple relations among the elements in the diet. Thus the isotopes in bone tissue would be directly proportional to the kinds of foods consumed.32 To obtain effective results from these tests, certain requirements must be met: the range of isotopic composition of many foods must be known; the concentration of isotopes in the selected section of bone matter (for example, colagen) must be controlled for; the diet must have contained enough animal and/or vegetable sources so that the characteristics of each one can be distinguished; and that the bones be found in a good state of preservation.33

While authors like Vogel and van der Merwe showed the usefulness of carbon isotope analysis, others like DeNiro and Epstein34 also experimented with nitrogen, establishing methods for its identification. One of the most important contributions of these last two authors ame from the diachronic study they undertook with bone remains in the Valley of Tehuacán in 1981. Their results showed a dramatic change in diet with time, in which there was a reduction in the varieties of animal and vegetable species consumed in later times.

Other important results were obtained by Tauber (1981), who turned to the carbon 13 isotope to identify the consumption of seafoods by Mesolithic fishermen and Neolithic farmers in Denmark. In another study, Schoeninger and DeNiro (1982, 1983, 1984) questioned the efficacy of this isotope and proved the usefulness of nitrogen for a similar purpose. Later, Schoeninger (1985) compared isotopes of carbon and nitrogen with the levels of strontium in the bones, while other studies of the same sort were done by other authors: Van der Merwe, 1982, 1989; Van der Merwe et al., 1981; Chisholm, 1989; Chisolm et al., 1982, 1983a, 1983b; Krueger and Sullivan, 1984; DeNiro, 1985, 1987; Walker and DeNiro, 1986; Ambrose and DeNiro, 1986a, 1986b, 1987, 1989; Lovell et al., 1986a, 1986b; Lynott et al., 1986; Sealy, 1986; Sealy and Van der Merwe, 1986, 1988, et al., 1987; Ambrose, 1987; Lee-Thorp and Van der Merwe, 1987; Keegan, 1989; Keegan and DeNiro, 1988; White and Schwarcz, 1989; Katzenberg, 1989a, 1989b; Lee-Thorp et al., 1989.

With respect to Mesoamerican populations, White and Schwarcz studied diet in a series of Prehispanic skeletons from the Mayan site of Lamanai, in Belize.35 Through the analysis of carbon and nitrogen isotopes, the authors concluded that individuals of high social rank consumed higher quantities of seafood, which they received via a commercial route established between the coast and their town which was about 50 kilometers in length. Also of importance were data which pointed out differences in consumption related to gender: men were in a better state of health and nutrition than women.

Another study worth mentioning is the one by Blake and his collaborators,36 in which they examined 30 bone samples from inhabitants of different sites along the coast of Chiapas, from the early Preclassic to the late Postclassic periods (3800 B.C. to 1524 A.D.). The procedure consisted of analyzing stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in order to detect diachronic and geographic differences in dietary patterns. The authors also undertook a detailed analysis of animal and plant residue recovered from archeological excavations to complement their other information. Blake and his team laid out, as preliminary conclusions, dietary patterns in each historical era and the differences found in the sites they studied. They suggested a list of animal and vegetable, as well as land and marine, sources of food, and they estimated the percentage consumed according to the density of food residues and the kind of vestigial tools located in pre-determined areas.

The authors’ final interpretation was that, during the early Preclassic, there was little consumption of corn. Their minute analysis of animal remains allowed them to suppose that diets included the following: a) different species of fish, such as mojarra (Chich¬la¬soma trimaculatum) and catfish (Arius); b) swamp turtle (Kinosternon); c) iguana (Iguana); d) certain snakes, among them boas (Boa constrictor); e) white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus); and f) the domestic dog, known as the itzcuintli in the Náhuatl language(Canis familiaris). They found that during the middle and late Preclassic there were centers in which corn was more heavily cultivated, and around these centers there grew up settlements, as well as the exchange of products which complemented the diet. The areas where there was no important agricultural development saw the emigration of their inhabitants to other areas and the diet of those who remained was very similar to earlier diets. The authors add that during the Classic and Post-Classic periods, the diet slowly grew even more varied than the diet in the Valley of Oaxaca, because, in addition to foods growing naturally there, there were also products of cultivation and other foods obtained through commerce.

This excellent study not only contributed the methodology of reconstructing diets by means of an integral analysis of the environment, of archeological evidence and the evidence of the chemical composition of bone remains, but also proposed ways to understand population dynamics through the study of migratory movements and the influence of technology and agriculture on this social process.

Another kind of test applied has to do with the use of a single chemical element, selected for how much it might reveal about a specific problem related fundamentally to disease and mortality. This strategy has been used to diagnose cases of lead poisoning as well as to establish a comparison between the health and nutrition which affect both ancient and contemporary populations.

The systematic studies on the concentration of lead in human remains done by Aufderheide and his collaborators37 are worthy of mention. They have constructed models of health and mortality and have been able to reach conclusions on different aspects of technology, occupation and social stratification using them. Among their publications is a report on experiments done on two series of skeletons from colonial plantations in the United States. The first set corresponded to the slaves who worked in the fields and the second to the landowners. The highest levels of lead were found in individuals of higher social rank due to the presence of this element in pots, pans and other recipients used for food and beverages. The slaves, on the other hand, used utensils made of simpler substances (wood, for example) which blocked the toxic process.

Another noteworthy application of their methodology is the detection of anemia through the analysis of iron, a mineral which is closely related to the level of red cells in the blood and to the consumption of animal protein. Zaino was one of the first authors who used this technique,38 comparing the concentration of iron in human bone remains among the Anasazi with that found in modern skeletons from the same region. His results indicated similar levels of iron in both cases and concluded that the native diet had always contained a high level of the proper nutrients throughout the period included in the study.39

This large body of studies using different methods and techniques also led to the raising of serious doubts. Sillen, Sealy and Van der Merwe40 fought to find out more about how these minerals were metabolized and what happened during the diagenetic process. For his part, Par¬k¬ington reflected critically on the use of stable isotopes, especially carbon. The author cuestions the interpretations regarding the consumption of seafood based on carbon levels, and says that the metabolic process and the paleo-environment are also factors which influence the isotopic composition of human remains.41

At the beginning of the last decade, publications on dietary habits, which include biogenic and diagenetic processes as a fundemamental part of their theoretical framework, continued to increase: Ambrose, 1990, 1991; Ambrose and Sikens, 1991; Molleson, 1990; Buikstra and Milner, 1991; Sealy et al., 1991; Martin et al., 1991; Pate et al., 1991; Roughead and Kunkel, 1991; Bocherens et al., 1991; Katztenberg, 1991a, 1991b, 1992; Van der Merwe, 1991; Krueger, 1991; Lee-Thorp and Van der Merwe, 1991; Van der Merwe and Medina, 1991; Sillen and LeGeros, 1991; Tiesznen et al., 1992; Blake et al., 1992; and Blake and Sandford, 1993.

Recent research and perspectives

The central focus of recent research has been the evaluation of the chemical variability of bone remains and their connection to economic, social and cultural aspects of ancient populations, using evidence from history, archeology, physical anthropology, ecology and ethnography.

Sandford did a critical review of the advances and deficiencies in the application of minerals and stable isotope analysis to the reconstruction of paleo-diets, focusing his attention primarily on the technical and methodological aspects of these analyses.42 His basic proposal is that the changes which a skeleton undergoes before and after death should be conceived as one continuous biogenic-diagenetic process, because only by doing this will it be possible to integrally evaluate the material and reach objective conclusions. In this collection, Sanford presents studies undertaken at the beginning of the nineties by authors like Ambrose; Klepinger; Verano and DeNiro; Williams; Edward and Benfer; and Radosevich,43 who offer reflections, judgments and suggestions for bettering the experimental side of research.

Teher have been other publications which propose a multifactorial examination of metabolic and biogenic mechanisms; taxonomic alterations; physical, chemical and biological agents in the environment; and cultural factors linked to people’s conception of death and their funerary practices. Since humans are the only living beings to bury their dead,44 it is important to have facts relating to the places destined for burials, the position of the remains when interred, the natural or intentional conservation of remains and the materials used for this purpose, the association of objects used as offerings with a burial, rituals concering the extinction of life and any other information useful in diagnosing the state of the bone material.

Peng’s45 article is an example of this. He describes the procedure carried out on the remains of an elderly woman who was found in an excellent state of preservation, associated with 1500 archeological pieces from the first years of the Western Han Dynasty in China. Certain organs and tissues were put through radiological and pathological tests; ultrastructural and parasitological studies; and chemical and instrumental analyses (these last including neutronic activation and atomic absorption spectrometry). It was concluded that the woman suffered from general atherosclerosis, multiple colelithiasis, schistosomiasis japonica, a chronic accumulation of lead and mercury; fractures of the radius and ulna; enterobiasis; and tricuriasis. According to the author, death was caused by a heart attack and acute colelithiasis brought on by eating a melon, judging by the extraction of melon remains and seeds from the esophagus, stomach and intestines.

On the other hand, one of the least explored fields is the one initiated by Zaino,46 which looks for pathological problems based on mineral metabolism. Nonetheless, polemical interpretations with respect to this method have appeared, like the one presented by Stuart-Macadam,47 who discusses two central hypotheses which contradict Zaino´s. The first of these says that diet plays only a small part in the incidence of porotic hyperostosis or iron-deficiency anemia. The second says that the lack of iron has to do with an adaptive process which some cultural groups have developed over the millenia as a defense against stress. She argues that ciertain organisms create mechanisms which inhibit the absorption of iron for the purpose of annihilating pathological agents which require it for their growth.

This author had evaluated problems of porotic hyperostosis by examining human cranea, princiaplly with X-rays,48 but her more recent proposals have an entirely different focus. They emphasize social inequality as one of the main causes of health and nutritional problems in different sectors of the population.

Another study directed to evaluating pathological aspects in bone remains is the one by Littleton,49 in which high levels of fluoride in teeth and bones of 255 individuals inhabiting the Arabian island of Bahrain (250 B.C.-250 A.D.) were measured. The author linked these data to lesions from hyperostosis, a malady found in four percent of the population.

Danielson and Reinhard used a different method,50 which consisted of observing wear on teeth among ancient hunter-gatherers in the Pecos region of Texas (8000 B.C.- 1000 A.D.) and comparing it to the chemical composition of foods and human coprolithic remains. The authors identified calcium oxalate crystals in the coproliths and similar crystals in cactus and acorns, which were widely consumed in the period. According to them, these foods caused characteristic wear on teeth.

Among other procedures that been have developed in the last few years, the analysis of major and trace elements in hair has been important for establishing genetic relationships and diagnosing health and nutritional conditions. This method had been used years before in clinical studies and as an auxiliary tool in forensic anthropology, in both cases for detecting traces of poison in criminal cases. The studies of Benfer, 1984; Benfer et al., 1978; Sandford, 1984; Sandford et al., 1983; Reinhold et al., 1966; Yang, 1985; Gibson et al., 1989, 1991; Forshuvud, 1961; Shapiro, 1967; Jenkins, 1979; Perkons and Jervis, 1962, 1966; and Valkovic, 1988 have all been important in this respect.51 The recent study by O’ Connell and Hedges should also be mentioned. These reserchers studied hair in living humans, analyzing isotopes of nitrogen and their relationship to the consumption of animal protein, in order to guide studies of paleo-diet. The analysis, undertaken on residents of Oxford, England, showed that the highest levels of nitrogen appeared in thos individuals whose diet included larger portions of animal products.

As for studies which used mixed analytical techniques to analyze chemical elements and stable isotopes in bone remains, the one carried out by Blitz52 on the diet of a sector of population in Monte Albán, is worth mentioning. Aside from the studies done by Brown for Tierras Largas and Huitzo, and the one done by Joyce53 for sites in Río Verde, Oaxaca, there had been no other research in the region which had tried to define dietary patterns conditioned by social and cultural characteristics. The goal of Blitz’s doctoral dissertation54 was to present a model of social stratification for the inhabitants of different areas of Monte Albán, during the Pre-classical and Classical periods. The results did not show appreciable differences between the diets of individuals. Regarding this, the author argues social inequality was fairly imperceptible, or that there were methodological problems with the control of contamination of the bones, caused by diagenesis. In spite of having collected a large quantity of data from archeological excavations and having consulted texts from the colonial period, she was not able to achieve an integral analysis of all the information she had, reducing her conclusions fundamentally to technical characteristics. Among her most significant contributions were the use of barium as an indicator of the consumption of vgetables, instead of strontium.

Antecedents in Mexico

Although Mesoamerican populations have been analyzed using this new technology, most of these analyses have been done outside the countries involved. There are very few antecedents of analyses done in Mexican institutions by Mexican specialists. The first of those that were is from the seventies, when a team – whose members were Luis Torres, an engineer and pioneer in the conservation of the nation’s cultural patrimony; Beatriz Sandoval, a chemist; and Luis Vargas, an anthropologist – undertook a project in which they analyzed trace elements in bones from archeological sites in the state of Chiapas. Although this study was never finished, it still has the merit of being the first effort by Mexican specialists in an unexplored field, and even more so, in a period in which there was no guarantee that the procedure worked.

Other tests were carried out in 1991 on bone samples from Xochimilco, as part of the project that the Instituto de Investigaciones Antro¬pológicas of the UNAM carried out at that site. At that time, Dr. Luis Barba, of the Laboratorio de Prospección Arqueológica of the same Institute; biologist Carlos Carriedo, of the Laboratorio de Química de la Procuraduría de Justicia del Distrito Federal, and I were able to measure calcium and phosphorus, the principal constituents of bone, as well as aluminum and copper, using an electron microscope on the remains. These results were never published, either. In 1993, Dra. Lourdes Márquez Morfín, of the Dirección de Antropología Física at the INAH, supported a research project into the diet of a part of the Prehispanic population of Monte Albán, which I supervised. The general goal of this study was to reconstruct individual and collective dietary patterns and to relate them to social stratification using indicators from both archeology and physical anthropology. Forty-one samples of human skeletal fragments, one animal tooth and two animal bones were analyzed, from four areas excavations belonging to the Preclassic and Classic periods (100 B.C.-650 A.D.), under the Archeological Rescue Project associated with the widening of the highway into Monte Albán. The project was directed by archeologist Ernesto González Licón in 1991 and 1992. The experimental phase of the project was developed at the Instituto de Investigaciones en Materiales, of the UNAM, with the participation of engineer Leticia Baños. Concentrations in the bone samples of calcium, phosphorus, strontium, zinc, barium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, titanium, copper, silicon, aluminum, sulphur, sodium, chorine, selenium, cadmium, rubidium, thalium, and neodymium were measured by X-ray fluorescence.55 The success of the analytical procedures, as well as access to all information having to do with the archeological retrieval process and the conditions of burial, finally resulted in the reconstruction of individual and collective dietary patterns, and it was possible to link these patterns to the social rank of the subjects studied, the places they lived and the historical period in which each one lived.

The first results were presented at the VIIth International Juan Comas Coloquium on Physical Anthropology, which took place in Mexico City in 1993.56 On this occasion, work was presented regarding the levels of calcium, phosphorus, strontium and zinc for three samples from individuals retrieved from the tombs at Monte Albán. In 1996, at the International Materials Research Congress, organized by the Mexican Association of Material Science in Cancún, Mexico,57 the first interpretations of the differences in behavior among the main minerals studied (calcium, phosphorus, strontium, barium, zinc, magnesium and manganese) were presented for all of the human samples. The statistical analysis of the data was done by Francisco Zamudio, an engineer from the School of Chemistry at the UNAM.

In February, 2000, the final results of the project were presented as a doctoral dissertation58 The central methodological focus of the dissertation is the chemical variability in bone remains, along with the complementary information from archeology, physical anthropology, ethnography and documents from the colonial era. The most significant technical contributions are the follwing: a) the ratio of calcium to phosphorus (Ca:P) and the comparison of this ratio in the Monte Albán samples and in living bone tissue; b) the ratio of strontium to zinc (Sr:Zn), proposed as a dietary index; and c) a suggestion to consider magnesium and potassium as important indicators of diet in Mesoamerica, because of their high concentration in foods like corn, beans, squash, avocado, quelites, guavas, zapotes, venison, rabbit and hare, among others. One technical mistake was not having studied soil samples themselves, but rather using information as to their chemical composition found in specialized texts.59

The conclusions in this study point out that dietary patterns vary with social class, those of higher rank having a more varied diet rich in animal protein. On the other hand, they show that the less privileged sectors of the population ate more and more vegetables as time went by, while the higher classes did not change their diet over time. However, the quantity of food consumed, both of animal and vegetable origin, decreased from one period to the next (the Preclassic to the Classic). The main causes of these events seem to be an increase in population over time and the ever-more-complex social organization that prevailed in Monte Albán. The last conclusion was that only by means of a multi-factorial analysis is it possible to derive sustainable interpretations with respect to diet, health and nutrition in earlier populations.

In 1998, in the science section of the Mexico City newspaper Uno más Uno, a far-reaching project to study the diet of several Mayan archeological sites was announced. The study would use mineral analysis of skeletal remains to accomplish its goals. The study was to be undertaken by researchers at the INAH, conjunction with specialists from the National Institute of Nuclear Research.

A year later, an article was published in which the results of analyses of strontium to calcium ratios (Sr: Ca) and zinc to calcium ratios (Zn: Ca) in 16 bone samples from Ko¬hunlich and 12 from Dzibanché were presented, but no referene to the technique for analysis was mentioned. One of the conclusions drawn by the authors of this study was the possibility of a difference in these ratios between males and females, since the remains of men and women showed different ranges of concentration of these elements. The authors emphasize the fact that the highest levels of strontium were located in Dzibanché, suggesting that, by the end of the Classic period, Kohunlich was an independent politial entity with better nutritional conditions than Dzibanché.60

In the study by Linda Manzanilla, Samuel Tejeda and Juan Carlos Martínez,61 preliminary results of the “analysis of strontium and zinc isotopes” in establishing the diet of individuales buried in the tunnels located to the east of the Pyramid of the Sun, specifically in the Cueva de las Varillas and the Cueva del Pirul. There is some confusion about the exact technique used, because the study mentions isotopic data, but according to the explanation in the text, this had to do with the “collection of X-ray spectra”. This procedure gives as a result the concentration of minerals in parts per million of the corresponding oxides, but it cannot detect a chemical element’s different isotopes. One of the conclusions of this study is that the diet of the Epiclassic period tended to contain more plant-based products than the Classic diet did, possibly due to the extreme exploitation of resources during the high point of the development of cities during the Classic period, to an extreme drought during this time and to changes in ways of managing the environment among Epiclassic groups.

The results of other studies were presented in May, 2002. Among these is the one by Arellín, Ortiz, Manzanilla and Ruvalcaba, which analyzes zinc and strontium in bones from Teotihuacan and from San Francisco Caxonos, Oaxaca, by means of the nuclear technique refered to as PIXE (pro¬ton induced X-ray emission). The analysis was carried out at the Physics Institute at the UNAM. Differences were detected in the concentration of the two elements among subjects at each site, although it was reported that among individuals from the same site levels of these minerals are similar. Another is the one by Solís, Mansilla and Lo¬me¬lí, which has to do with the analysis of trace elements in teeth from Prehispanic inhabitants of Tlaltelolco and others from colonial inhabitants of the San Jerónimo Convent in Mexico City. Their data indicate differences in the diet of those two sites which were factors in modifying the health of the inhabitants. Prehispanic inhabitants of the Mayan site of Calakmul were examined by Tiesler, Carrasco and Tejeda using an analysis of the levels of strontium, calcium, zinc and barium in bone remains with x-ray spectrometry. The results showed variation in diet in all individuals as well as differences in diet by gender, there being a greater of consumption of animal protein in men than in women.

A study of paleo-diet in a sector of the Prehispanic population of the La Peña archeological site located in the municipio of Valle de Bravo, in the State of Mexico is now underway. The analytical procedure is being carried out by Dr. Dolores Tenorio at the National Institute for Nuclear Research (ININ), using the PIXE technique. Team members from the INAH are Eva Leticia Brito, Silvia Murillo and José Hernández.

At the same time a study is in progress to discover dietary patterns and their relationship to general living conditions at the archeological sites of San Buenaventura, in the municipio of Ixtapaluca; Santa Cruz Atiza¬pán and Xico, in the municipio of Chalco (all the foregoing in the State of México); San Gregorio Atlapulco (Xochimilco); Chac Mool, Quintana Roo, and Yautepec, Morelos. Researchers from the State of Mexico INAH Center and from the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH), on the one hand, and from the School of Chemistry, the Instituto de Investigaciones en Materiales and the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, all of the UNAM, are participating in the study, which is being financed by the National Science and Technology Council (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, Co¬nacyt).

Conclusions

After three decades of experimentation, it is clear that chemical analyses are effective and important for the reconstruction of paleo-diet, states of health and nutrition and the contributions of these to knowledge of general living conditions in ancient populations. These technological innovationa have allowed the appearance of disciplines like archeometry, whose goal is the determination of the chemical composition of archeological material, based on its own scientific theories which are not precisely those of anthropology, which has a much older lineage.

It is important to reflect upon the development of new lines of research in anthropology and history, with the necessary support that science must receive from technology and specifically from the teachings in this field which the end of the last century has left us as a legacy. It is fundamental to struggle for the discovery and acceptation of little-explored fields of research in Mexico, leaving to one side attitudes of intolerance and inflexibility which have no place in the dynamic changes and advances which science has made at the threshold of the 20th century. The benefits which national technological development may confer must be considered, for the purpose of ending Mexico’s strong dependence on other countries in this sense and of preparing ourselves not only to receive but to contribute to scientific advancement in the context of irreversible global development.

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Translator’s note

Pirul: The pirul is a tree which grows in Mesoarmerica.
Quelite: The quelite is a leafy vegetable common in Mexico.
Zapote: The zapote is a tropical fruit with a soft, very sweet, dark-brown interior and a thin dark-green skin.
Cueva del Pirul: Cave of the Pirul
Cueva de las Varillas: Cave of the Canestalks

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