Evaluating marine diets through radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis of victims of the AD79 eruption of vesuvius



The stable carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) isotope values of bone collagen are frequently used in paleodietary studies to assess the marine contribution to an individual's diet. Surprisingly, the relationship between stable isotope these values characteristics and the percentage of marine foods in diet has never been effectively demonstrated. To clarify this relationship, the stable isotope values and radiocarbon dates of nine humans and one sheep from Herculaneum, all who perished simultaneously during the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius, were determined. Significant differences were found in the radiocarbon dates which are attributable to the incorporation of “old” carbon from the marine reservoir. The magnitude of the observed differences was linearly correlated with both δ13C and δ15N values allowing the response of each isotope to increasing marine carbon in collagen to be independently verified. Regression analyses showed that for every 1‰ enrichment in δ13C and δ15N, 56 years and 34 years were added to the radiocarbon age, respectively. Predictions of the maximum marine reservoir age differed considerably depending on which stable isotope was considered. This discrepancy is attributed to some degree of macronutrient scrambling whereby nitrogen from marine protein is preferentially incorporated in collagen over marine carbon. It is suggested that the macronutrient scrambling explains the observed relationship between δ13C and δ15N from Roman coastal sites and should be considered when interpreting any diet which is not dominated by protein. Nevertheless, without knowing the degree of macronutrient scrambling in different dietary scenarios, the accuracy of dietary reconstructions is severely compromised. Am J Phys Anthropol 152:345–352, 2013. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.