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13C Content of human collagen as a measure of prehistoric diet in woodland North America


PLANTS with the C4 dicarboxylic acid pathway of photosynthesis have markedly higher 13C/12C ratios than plants with the C3 or Calvin pathway1–4. Cumulative assessments of relative 13C concentration (δ13C) values for C3 plant foliage yield an average of −26.5‰, relative to the PDB standard whereas C4 plants average −12.5‰ (ref. 5). These differences in carbon isotope ratios are passed along the food chain to animals and man, so that the nature of the plant food base can be determined through measurements on different body tissues of the consumers. In this study, the time of introduction of maize, a C4 plant, to the prehistoric inhabitants of several regions in woodland North America, almost exclusively a C3 plant regime, was determined through isotopic measurements on human bone collagen. The subsequent elevation of maize to the level of a diet staple is also documented.

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VAN DER MERWE, N., VOGEL, J. 13C Content of human collagen as a measure of prehistoric diet in woodland North America. Nature 276, 815–816 (1978).

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