Tracking human travel using stable oxygen and hydrogen isotope analyses of hair and urine

Authors

  • Diane M. O'Brien,

    Corresponding author
    1. Institute of Arctic Biology and Department of Biology and Wildlife, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK 99775-7000, USA
    • Institute of Arctic Biology and Department of Biology and Wildlife, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK 99775-7000, USA.
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  • Matthew J. Wooller

    1. Alaska Stable Isotope Facility: Water and Environmental Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK 99775, USA
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  • Diane M. O'Brien and Matthew J. Wooller contributed equally to this work.

Abstract

The stable oxygen and hydrogen isotope compositions of organic samples are increasingly being used to investigate patterns of animal migration. Relatively few studies have applied these techniques to modern humans, despite a variety of potential forensic applications. We analyzed drinking water and food at two geographic locations, East Greenbush, New York (USA) and Fairbanks, Alaska (USA), with different δ18O and δD values for precipitation and tap water. Foods varied widely in measured δ18O and δD values, but not systematically by purchase location. We measured δ18O and δD values of scalp hair from five residents at each location. We used a mixing model to establish the proportion of oxygen and hydrogen in head hair derived from drinking water (∼27% and ∼36%, respectively). Finally, we analyzed the δ18O and δD values of facial hair and urine from a subject who traveled from Fairbanks to East Greenbush, on to the UK and back to Fairbanks. Urine δ18O and δD values responded immediately and strongly to travel-related change in drinking water, and were well described by a single-pool turnover model. Beard hair δ18O values tracked changes in urine δ18O closely, and oscillated between the values for the resident populations in both locations. In contrast, beard hair δD values did not track changes in urine δD as well, and retained a signature of the traveler's permanent residence. Our findings show that the δ18O and δD values of urine and facial hair (specifically δ18O) can provide a record of the geographical movements of humans. Copyright © 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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