Zinc isotopes in Late Pleistocene fossil teeth from a Southeast Asian cave setting preserve paleodietary information

Nicolas Bourgon, Klervia Jaouen, Anne Marie Bacon, Klaus Peter Jochum, Elise Dufour, Philippe Duringer, Jean Luc Ponche, Renaud Joannes-Boyau, Quentin Boesch, Pierre Olivier Antoine, Manon Hullot, Ulrike Weis, Ellen Schulz-Kornas, Manuel Trost, Denis Fiorillo, Fabrice Demeter, Elise Patole-Edoumba, Laura L. Shackelford, Tyler E. Dunn, Alexandra ZachwiejaSomoh Duangthongchit, Thongsa Sayavonkhamdy, Phonephanh Sichanthongtip, Daovee Sihanam, Viengkeo Souksavatdy, Jean Jacques Hublin, Thomas Tütken

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios of collagen from bone and dentin have frequently been used for dietary reconstruction, but this method is limited by protein preservation. Isotopes of the trace element zinc (Zn) in bioapatite constitute a promising proxy to infer dietary information from extant and extinct vertebrates. The 66Zn/64Zn ratio (expressed as δ66Zn value) shows an enrichment of the heavy isotope in mammals along each trophic step. However, preservation of diet-related δ66Zn values in fossil teeth has not been assessed yet. Here, we analyzed enamel of fossil teeth from the Late Pleistocene (38.4-13.5 ka) mammalian assemblage of the Tam Hay Marklot (THM) cave in northeastern Laos, to reconstruct the food web and assess the preservation of original δ66Zn values. Distinct enamel δ66Zn values of the fossil taxa (δ66Zncarnivore < δ66Znomnivore < δ66Znherbivore) according to their expected feeding habits were observed, with a trophic carnivore-herbivore spacing of +0.60% and omnivores having intermediate values. Zn and trace element concentration profiles similar to those of modern teeth also indicate minimal impact of diagenesis on the enamel. While further work is needed to explore preservation for settings with different taphonomic conditions, the diet-related δ66Zn values in fossil enamel from THM cave suggest an excellent long-term preservation potential, even under tropical conditions that are well known to be adverse for collagen preservation. Zinc isotopes could thus provide a new tool to assess the diet of fossil hominins and associated fauna, as well as trophic relationships in past food webs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4675-4681
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number9
StatePublished - Mar 3 2020


  • Diagenesis
  • Diet
  • Stable isotopes
  • Trophic ecology
  • Zinc

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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