ARCHAEOLOGICAL APPLICATIONS OF AMINO ACID RACEMIZATION*

Authors

  • B. J. JOHNSON,

    1. INSTAAR and the Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Campus Box 450, Boulder, CO 28309–0450, USA
    2. Geophysical Laboratory, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 5251 Broad Branch Road, NW, Washington, DC 20015–1305, USA
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  • G. H. MILLER

    1. INSTAAR and the Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Campus Box 450, Boulder, CO 28309–0450, USA
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  • *

    Received 26 September 1995, accepted 23 August 1996.

Abstract

Amino acid racemization (AAR) in fossil biominerals has been used over the last 30 years to develop reliable chronologies and thermal histories in archaeological settings from all over the world. It is a biochemical reaction which progresses with time and temperature, and has the potential to be used in any material capable of sequestering amino acids (e.g., avian eggshell, molluscs, teeth, and bones). AAR is not a numerical dating method, per se; however, it can be used for a variety of chronological and palaeotemperature applications. Provided there is some independent age control, AAR can be used to extend or to improve upon the chronology, or to reconstruct the temperature history at a site. The use of AAR as a dating/palaeothermometry tool has been somewhat underutilized by the archaeological community, presumably due to a series of errors made on studies of human bone shortly after the technique was first discovered. Since these early studies, continued exploration of AAR has demonstrated the growing power of the technique for chronological and palaeothermometry research in certain sample types, as well as some novel applications pertinent to archaeologists and anthropologists. For example, relevant information on human behaviour, including burial practices, the use of fire, and the degree of mixing at a site, can be determined using AAR. This paper presents the basic principles behind AAR and a review of the technique as it has been applied to the archaeological record. AAR in some of the biominerals commonly associated with archaeological sites is reviewed, and guidelines for sample collection presented. Finally, a brief description of some of the chromatography techniques used for amino acid analysis is given.

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