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Multi-isotopic tracing of human and animal mobility in lowland Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ISOPATH (Multi-isotopic tracing of human and animal mobility in lowland Europe)

Reporting period: 2019-01-07 to 2021-01-06

The main issue being addressed by ISOPATH was to unlock patterns of mobility – an essential socio-economic strategy – in prehistoric societies of Europe. Mobility is among the fundamental problems of the modern world and the understanding of its long-lasting presence and consequences is important for modern society. ISOPATH addressed mobility’s impact on some of the earliest generations of Europeans, living between ca. 3700–1200 BC.
ISOPATH had two specific aims. The first was to reconstruct cattle herding strategies in lowland areas of Europe. Pilot studies suggested seasonal movement of cattle, known as transhumance, similar to practices evidenced in mountain regions today. The second aim was to reconstruct human journeys, residential mobility and individual life histories. ISOPATH combined anthropological, archaeological and scientific perspectives of human mobility and looked for specific social practices like marrying outside one’s social group, known as exogamy, or individual journeys for various reasons.
ISOPATH included intensive training aimed at acquiring knowledge and skills in the areas of archaeology, archaeological sciences and isotopic geochemistry. The training-through-research included sample pre-treatment and strontium isotope analyses in the Isotopic Laboratories of Bristol Isotope Group (BIG), and sample pre-treatment and carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses at the Bristol Radiocarbon Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (BRAMS) facility. Research development workshops provided by host institution’s Cultivating Research and Teaching Excellence (CREATE) scheme covered professional and career development, research management, communication and dissemination, and engagement and impact. External training included a course in storytelling and Short Course in Radiocarbon Dating and Bayesian Chronological Analysis provided by University of Oxford. The fellow participated in the University of Bristol’s interdisciplinary Mentoring Circle Scheme, discussing such issues as career development, publishing strategies and work-life balance. The fellow actively engaged and contributed to research and teaching at the University of Bristol. This included becoming a Research Staff Representative of the School of Arts, a Unit Director (for the course “Unlocking Ancient Diet”) at the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, and giving a talk for Department’s Bristol Archaeology and Anthropology Seminar (BAARS).
Within the project a literature survey was performed to develop a methodological approach and interpretative models adjusted to achieve the specific aims of ISOPATH. A novel theoretical framework was developed for unravelling the socio-economic strategies in the studied periods and understanding their evolution. It drew upon insights from theoretical advances in the humanities, and social and natural sciences. ISOPATH explored issues essential for understanding the implementation of specific social and subsistence strategies and their modifications. These were social competition in ritual and day-to-day activities, social benefits of economic specialisation, socio-technological innovations, and adaptations to climate fluctuations or risk in the environment. The experimental component of ISOPATH included seven specific tasks. Firstly, samples of human and animal teeth secured for the project were transferred to Bristol, and a number of short visits in Poland allowed fieldwork to be conducted and collection of environmental samples. Next the baseline samples of modern plants, sediments and teeth of archaeological fauna were prepared and analysed using established isotopic methods. At the same time, samples of tooth enamel and dentin from 100 human individuals were prepared and analysed. Strontium isotope analyses were performed at the University of Bristol, whilst oxygen and carbon isotopes were outsourced to the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, the host of this project’s Secondment. Selected cattle teeth were also analysed using the laser ablation analytical technique. Finally, selected plant macrofossils and well as animal and human skeletal remains were radiocarbon dated at the University of Bristol. The isotopic signatures obtained from baseline samples were used to calculate strontium isotope local ranges with high spatial resolution. All isotopic data for humans and animals (generated by ISOPATH and other projects) was integrated to build a coherent mobility-dietary picture. For diet reconstruction, Bayesian mixing models were applied. Archaeological indicators of local vs. nonlocal origins of particular individuals were evaluated and juxtaposed with their isotopic signatures, sex, age and (where available) aDNA data. A series of radiocarbon dates (available for all skeletons with preserved collagen) provided ISOPATH with a reliable temporal perspective. The project-generated theoretical framework was then applied and an advanced model of the socio-economic development of the studied populations was built.
Dissemination included a talk at the 40th Association for Environmental Archaeology Conference, University of Sheffield, 29 November-1 December 2019, titled “Isotopic analyses of charred plants through the ages. Cases from northern Poland”.
ISOPATH brought a deeper understanding of human and animal mobility in prehistoric lowland Europe. This was possible mainly thanks to a comprehensive study in the variability of strontium isotope ratios in the natural environment. Moreover, a relatively large number of analysed human samples allowed for acquiring statistically significant strontium and oxygen isotope datasets, supported by radiocarbon datings and stable carbon and nitrogen isotope measurements. Additionally, first systematic data on cattle mobility was generated by applying laser ablation strontium isotope analyses. Hence, in the future ISOPATH can serve as a template for archaeological and environmental projects exploiting isotopic methods for studying the geographic provenience of humans and animals living in post-glacial landscape types. Project’s outcomes will also increase the public awareness of the importance of migration and mobility in the socio-economic development of Europe in prehistory with consequences visible today.
Today broomcorn millet is a commonly in eaten in East-Central Europe as porridge.
Fragment of a child’s skull and a stone battle axe from the grave in Obłaczkowo, Poland