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Keywords:

  • stable isotopes;
  • keratin;
  • model

Abstract

A semimechanistic model has recently been proposed to explain observed correlations between the H and O isotopic composition of hair from modern residents of the USA and the isotopic composition of drinking water, but the applicability of this model to hair from non-USA and preglobalization populations is unknown. Here we test the model against data from hair samples collected during the 1930s–1950s from populations of five continents. Although C and N isotopes confirm that the samples represent a much larger range of dietary “space” than the modern USA residents, the model is able to reproduce the observed δ2H and δ18O values given reasonable adjustments to 2 model parameters: the fraction of dietary intake derived from locally produced foods and the fraction of keratin H fixed during the in vivo synthesis of amino acids. The model is most sensitive to the local dietary intake, which appears to constitute between 60% and 80% of diet among the groups sampled. The isotopic data are consistent with a trophic-level effect on protein H isotopes, which we suggest primarily reflects mixing of 2H-enriched water and 2H-depleted food H in the body rather than fractionation during biosynthesis. Samples from Inuit groups suggest that humans with marine-dominated diets can be identified on the basis of coupled δ2H and δ18O values of hair. These results indicate a dual role for H and O isotopic measurements of keratin, including both biological (diet, physiology) and environmental (geographic movement, paleoclimate) reconstruction. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.