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Historical overview and new directions in bioarchaeological trace element analysis: a review

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bioarchaeology, trace element analysis, diagenesis, micro-sampling, element mapping, non-traditional stable isotope analysis

Abstract (summary)

Given their strong affinity for the skeleton, trace elements are often stored in bones and teeth long term. Diet, geography, health, disease, social status, activity, and occupation are some factors which may cause differential exposure to, and uptake of, trace elements, theoretically introducing variability in their concentrations and/or ratios in the skeleton. Trace element analysis of bioarchaeological remains has the potential, therefore, to provide rich insights into past human lifeways. This review provides a historical overview of bioarchaeological trace element analysis and comments on the current state of the discipline by highlighting approaches with growing momentum. Popularity for the discipline surged following preliminary studies in the 1960s to 1970s that demonstrated the utility of strontium (Sr) as a dietary indicator. During the 1980s, Sr/Ca ratio and multi-element studies were commonplace in bioarchaeology, linking trace elements with dietary phenomena. Interest in using trace elements for bioarchaeological inferences waned following a period of critiques in the late 1980s to 1990s that argued the discipline failed to account for diagenesis, simplified complex element uptake and regulation processes, and used several unsuitable elements for palaeodietary reconstruction (e.g. those under homeostatic regulation, those without a strong affinity for the skeleton). In the twenty-first century, trace element analyses have been primarily restricted to Sr and lead (Pb) isotope analysis and the study of toxic trace elements, though small pockets of bioarchaeology have continued to analyse multiple elements. Techniques such as micro-sampling, element mapping, and non-traditional stable isotope analysis have provided novel insights which hold the promise of helping to overcome limitations faced by the discipline.

Publication Information

Simpson, R., D.M.L. Cooper, T. Swanston, I. Coulthard, and T.L. Varney. (2021). Historical Overview and New Directions in Bioarchaeological Trace Element Analysis: A Review. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 13: 24.


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Attribution (CC BY)