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Keywords:

  • Strontium/calcium ratios;
  • Diet;
  • Prehistoric native Americans

Abstract

Because plants and animals consume or absorb different amounts of strontium and calcium, anthropologists are able to use strontium/calcium (Sr/Ca) ratios from archaeologically recovered human bone to estimate the relative contributions of meat and plants to paleodiets. Often females exhibit higher Sr/Ca ratios than males, a fact usually attributed to lower meat intake among women. However, in vivo and in vitro experiments with laboratory animals show that pregnancy and lactation elevate maternal bone strontium and depress maternal bone calcium because 1) strontium is discriminated against in favor of calcium in the transport of ions to the placenta and mammary glands and 2) pregnancy and lactation facilitate absorption of alkaline earth metals from the gut. In this study, bone Sr/Ca ratios and strontium concentrations were compared between reproductive-age females, postmenopausal females, and adult males from two late prehistoric Native American sites in Georgia: the King site (N = 43) and the Etowah site (N = 51). At the King site, the mean Sr/Ca ratio of females was over 14% greater than that of males. At Etowah, the mean strontium level of reproductive-age females exceeded that of postmenopausal females by almost 25%. Most of the difference, it is argued, is due to pregnancy and lactation. A dietary preference among pregnant and lactating women for foods high in alkaline earths, particularly nuts and corn, may also be partially responsible. Until we assess the influence variables other than nutrition exert on trace element concentrations, our reconstructions of paleodiets will be suspect.