Age differences in stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios in a population of prehistoric maize horticulturists


  • M. Anne Katzenberg,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Archaeology, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4, Canada
    • Department of Archaeology, University of Calgary, 2500 University Dr. N.W., Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4, Canada
    Search for more papers by this author
  • Shelley R. Saunders,

    1. Department of Anthropology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario L8S 4L9, Canada
    Search for more papers by this author
  • William R. Fitzgerald

    1. Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3C5, Canada
    Search for more papers by this author


Stable carbon isotope ratios in prehistoric human bone collagen have been used extensively to document the introduction and intensification of maize horticulture in northeastern North America. Most previous studies are based on small samples of adults who are assumed to characterize the diet of the population. In this study, all 29 individuals buried within an Ontario Iroquoian village site dated A.D. 1530–1580 were analysed for stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen. Age distribution of the sample ranges from preterm to elderly. Significant negative correlations between age and δ13C, and age and δ15N values were found. High δ13C values in infants and young children (δ13C = −;6.8 to −12.3) suggest a weaning diet high in maize. High δ15N values in infants relative to adults suggest a trophic level effect during breast-feeding which has been reported in a modern sample by Tuross et al. (Am. J. Phys. Anthropol., 1993).

In addition to the isotopic evidence for extremely high carbohydrate (maize) intake, the MacPherson sample includes two juveniles aged 3–4 years, exhibiting circular caries. No other cases of this condition are known in the extensively studied southern Ontario skeletal collections. Together the evidence from dentition and stable carbon isotopes indicates a very high carbohydrate diet in subadults. Circular caries result from developmental stress during enamel formation with subsequent caries formation in areas of thinner enamel. These findings are relevant to studies of infant and early childhood morbidity and mortality among prehistoric maize horticulturists. © 1993 Wiley-Liss, Inc.