Isotopes and Environments

From Jennifer Jones:

Happy Day of Archaeology! Today is a little unusual for me. I’m in Tokyo Japan, getting ready to travel to Nagoya tomorrow for the International Quaternary Union conference where I will be presenting some of my research about past climate change in the Palaeolithic, and will get the chance to hear the most up to date research on climate change, environments, and human behaviour. Going to conferences is a crucial way for archaeologists to share research, make connections within the wider archaeological and research community, and to debate and discuss key research themes.


Today is a day off for me, and I visited Meiji shrine, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken, set in a huge man made forest of 120,000 trees of 365 different species donated from across Japan. This shows the huge impact that humans can have on the local environment, and even thought it was only created in the last 100 years, the forest dominates this piece of land in the centre of the city and makes for a very striking landscape.

Jennifer Jones

I am a Marie Curie funded Post-Doctoral Research Fellow based at the University of Cantabria in the North of Spain. The Cantabrian region is home to the world heritage site that encompasses the rich archaeological cave sites full or fantastic cave paintings, animal bones, portable art, and stone tools. My project ‘CLIMAPROX’ “Hunter-Gatherer adaptations in northern Iberian Refugia from the Last Glacial Maximum to the Mesolithic: a multi-proxy climatic investigation” is exploring changes in environment using stable isotope analysis of animal bones in combination with other environmental proxies (e.g. sediments, pollen, microfauna, and fauna) to understand human responses to environmental change from the Last Glagical Maximum to the Mesolithic (c.22,000-8000 BP) in the Cantabrian Region in Northern Spain. This was an important period of time, where several key things happened; there was an increase in population, we see the emergence of cave art and portable art, and we see a greater diversification in diet at the end of this time, which ultimately leads to the origins of farming in the Neolithic. I want to find out the role of the environment in driving these changes, and how the environment affected human behaviour at this crucial time in prehistory.

Recently I’ve been sampling animal bones to undertake stable isotope analysis from sites for isotopic analysis which involves visiting museum collections, to find suitable bone samples to choose for isotopic analysis. I have to make a full written and photographic record of all of the bones before I cut, them to ensure that sampling is as minimally destructive as possible. I am very privileged to work with these collections, and it is always very exciting to know that from these bones we can find out lots of valuable information about past environments. I’ve enjoyed looking out for cut marks, and marrow cracking marks on the bones-evidence that humans were using these animals as food.

Next I have lots of lab work to pre-treat the bones to extract the collagen for carbon and nitrogen analysis. I enjoy lab work, and there is a real thrill when you get back the results after all of your hard work. After that there is the fun of working out what they all mean! Hopefully for next year’s day of archaeology I will have lots of interesting and exciting results to tell you about!



Tracking Ice Age Mammoths

In my last post, I talked about the main project I’m currently working on, which is studying the stone tools made by the last Neanderthals at the site of La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey. This collapsed cave site is well-known not only for the richness of its deposits, but also for the famous ‘bone heaps’ of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros remains found in the 1960s-70s excavations. These have been interpreted as the remains of a mass-kill by early Neanderthals driving herds off the cliffs into the ravine.

Standing below the site of La Cotte de St Brelade. The rock arch in shadow opens out into the ravine.

Another project I am working on today is aimed at testing this theory, as well as providing rare information about the migratory behaviour of ice age megafauna. These are the large, often formidable beasts that lived alongside the last Neanderthals: mammoth and woolly rhino, giant deer, horse, bison and the extinct ancestors of  today’s domesticated cows.

In 2010 I set up a project with Geoff Smith and Sarah Viner that uses isotopic analysis of ancient teeth to determine mobility of Pleistocene megafauna.  The Pleistocene covers roughly the million years before the end of the last ice age, but at the moment we are focusing on investigating sites during the time of the Neanderthals, which is mid-late Pleistocene. Our first site is La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey, which we are working on with the Quaternary Archaeology and Environments of Jersey project. We can use the Strontium isotopes present in an individuals’ teeth to determine their movements over different periods. Simply put, we can find out if an animal whose remains ended up at La Cotte had spent time in other regions of the landscape. Isotopic analysis works based on how different geology affects the levels of Strontium isotopes present in drinking water, which gets laid down in animals’ and peoples’ teeth.

This kind of direct measure of animal (and human) mobility is still quite rare for this period, although one Neanderthal from Lakonis in Greece has been published. We want to understand how animals that Neanderthals were hunting were moving around: for example, were mammoths great travellers as African elephants today can be? And were Pleistocene reindeer going on vast annual migrations as we can see in herds from Alaska in modern times? This information will help build models about how Neanderthals may have been following or intercepting megafauna at various points in the landscape. As Neanderthal fossils themselves are so precious, it’s unlikely we will be able to directly measure the mobility of many more individuals for some time. Until then, we can use animal movements to provide a framework alongside other measures for Neanderthal mobility such as transport of stone tools. At La Cotte, we may also be able to test whether the bone heaps are really mass-kills by determining if the bones represent  herds that had moved around together, and then were killed in one event.

With some of the La Cotte de St Brelade collections, Jersey Museum.

We received funding this year from the Societe Jersiaise, the island of Jersey’s learned society, to do pilot analysis on six samples of mammoth and horse teeth, which Sarah will be undertaking very soon. Today I am working on finding more funding to allow us to increase the number of samples from the site. This involves trawling various websites of funding bodies to see whether we are eligible or not for different grants. We’re in a difficult situation, as only one of us (Sarah) currently has a Postdoc, and is therefore affiliated to an Institution, which rules us out of a lot of grants. At the same time, current Postdocs are ineligible to apply for other kinds of funding, meaning that early career researchers in our position really struggle to get projects off the ground independently.

We are hopeful however that the pilot study will provide positive results which will allow us to apply for more extended funding from particular sources, and keep building up the project profile while I apply for Postdoc funding separately.

My last post for today will be a round-up of the other things I’ve been working on, including writing a funding application to work on a French project on Neanderthal landscape use.