Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of human and animal diet in Africa

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The stable carbon and nitrogen isotope composition of bone collagen has been determined for 238 modern non-human mammals, comprising 43 species of herbivores and carnivores from grasslands and montane forests in Kenya and Tanzania, and 97 historic and prehistoric humans, representing 12 populations with different dietary adaptations from eastern and southern Africa. Among non-human species carbon isotope ratios separate grazers from browsers in open grasslands, forest floor from forest canopy, and forest floor from open grassland feeders. Nitrogen isotopes separate carnivores from herbivores and forest from savanna-living species. Water-dependent herbivores have lower nitrogen isotope ratios than drought-tolerant ones in the same habitat. Among human populations, carbon isotopes differentiate those who regularly consume grains and/or the protein of browsing animals from those who consume wild plants, non-grain crops and/or the protein of wild animals. Nitrogen isotopes differentiate those dependent on the milk, meat and blood of domestic animals or marine resources from those dependent mainly on plant foods. Combined use of carbon and nitrogen isotopes permits the differentiation of pastoralists from farmers, camel pastoralists from capri-bovine pastoralists, and grain farmers from non-grain farmers. The apparent presence of physiological and climatic influences on nitrogen isotope ratios within trophic levels complicates dietary interpretations of variations in nitrogen isotope ratios but may also offer a new tool of climatic reconstruction. It shoudl nonetheless be possible to use the analysis of the isotopic composition of bone collagen as a quantitative technique for the reconstruction of diet, habitat selection, climate and water balance in prehistoric animal and human communities, and to test models that suggest dietary adaptations were prime movers of hominid biological and cultural evolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)707-731
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Human Evolution
Issue number8
StatePublished - Dec 1986


  • African animal ecology
  • African human diet
  • bone chemistry
  • carbon isotopes
  • environmental reconstruction
  • human evolution
  • nitrogen isotopes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology


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