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Identification by isotopes of human provenancing

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Human tissue composition linked to the environment

Scientists have developed and successfully applied a multi-isotope method to determine the geographical origins of humans. In collaboration with police, the isotope technique was instrumental in identifying the mother of an abandoned baby.

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Identifying the origin (provenance) and movements of humans and animals is important to a number of fields, including ecology and forensics. Analysis of isotopes in teeth, hair, bones and organs has proved useful in this endeavour. Tissue isotope composition, acquired through dietary intake, is often correlated with isotope composition of the environment of origin (e.g. drinking water, soil). However, the enormous potential of multi-isotope studies remains largely untapped. That will no longer be the case thanks to validation of such methods by EU-funded scientists working on the project 'Identification by isotopes of human provenancing' (IDIS). After a successful validation of the developed techniques using tissue samples of known origin (from volunteers), The “cold case” team of the Amsterdam-Amstelland police in the Netherlands, requested the researchers to apply the isotope technique to a number of 'cold cases' to help finding the place of origin of unidentified individuals. During the course of the isotope study, one case was solved by conventional methods. Researchers took the opportunity to validate the methodology again, this time with samples from a person of now-known origin found dead in the Amsterdam area. The isotope study suggested a region of origin, which coincided with the place of origin of the individual, providing a successful result for the multi-isotope technique. This technique hopes to bring resolution to some of the other 11 open cases. Isotope results from some cases have been publicised on Dutch television and in numerous newspapers. The multi-isotope method was successfully applied to several cases of the Dutch police. In one particularly poignant result, the isotope analysis was used together with DNA to identify a mother who had abandoned two children in three years. The method was shown to be powerful in animal cases as well. It was used to confirm that a wolf found shot dead in the Netherlands was not, in fact, from the Netherlands but from Eastern Europe. The carcass had raised the question of whether or not there are wolves living in the Netherlands. IDIS scientists have presented their work throughout the Netherlands to police and prosecutors in private meetings and in open talks and workshops. The multi-isotope methodology is expected to be a welcome tool in the hands of forensics staff all over the world, supporting them in their resolution of present and past cases. Its broad-reaching utility in fields of ecology and archaeology should not be underestimated.


Isotopes, multi-isotope, forensics, tissue composition, human provenancing

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