Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Isotope Analysis of Human and Animal Diets from the Hanamiai Archaeological Site (French Polynesia)

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Isotope Analysis of Human and Animal Diets from the Hanamiai Archaeological Site (French Polynesia)

Article excerpt


We report the first palaeodietary stable isotope study of humans and animals from an East Polynesian archaeological site. The Hanamiai Dune in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia has a long stratigraphy (ca. 1025 AD to 1850 AD). We obtained carbon and nitrogen isotope values for a wide range of terrestrial and marine species from different cultural layers. We also analyzed four human teeth representing four different individuals. Pigs, rats and dogs from the initial occupation phases had isotope signatures indicating marine protein consumption, probably linked to the consumption, and subsequent extinction, of indigenous seabirds. We found evidence of different pig husbandry practices, with some pigs having an almost entirely marine diet. Humans, surprisingly, did not have a mainly marine diet but likely derived the majority of their protein from eating terrestrial mammals such as pigs, as well as perhaps dogs and rats.

Keywords: Diet, Stable Isotopes, East Polynesia, Marine Foods, Domestication


The study of the human colonisation of the Polynesian islands has a long tradition, and the nature of this process has been the source of a number of lively debates in recent years (Anderson 2003; Irwin 1992; Finney 1994; Spriggs and Anderson 1993). One of the most interesting aspects of this colonization process relates to the introduction of cultivated plants and domesticated animals to previously uninhabited islands, and the subsequent significant impact upon these island ecosystems, often resulting in the extinction of many endemic species. Related to this is the question of the subsistence strategies of the people who colonised these islands. The prevailing view is that even after the establishment of agriculture and animal husbandry most Polynesians had a diet based mainly on the consumption of marine foods, supplemented by agricultural products such as taro and breadfruit (Kirch 1984, 1985, 2000; Rolett 1998). Introduced pigs and dogs are generally believed to have been consumed only occasionally, perhaps mainly by the elites and also as part of elaborate ceremonies.

This picture of Polynesian subsistence is based largely on ethnographic accounts and indirect archaeological evidence. In order to provide direct evidence of the diets of humans and domestic animals in Polynesia we undertook an isotopic dietary study of human and animal bones and teeth from the Hanamiai Dune site in the Marquesas Islands of East Polynesia (Figure 1). The Hanamiai Dune is ideal for a study such as this, as it has a long occupation sequence spanning from ca. 1025 AD to 1850 AD, which allows us to investigate changes in the isotope values, and therefore diets, of humans and the introduced mammal species, namely pig, dog and rat. The isotope values of these animals can tell us about human dietary patterns, as well as providing information on husbandry practices and ecological adaptations.

Isotope analysis

Measurement of the carbon and nitrogen stable isotope ratios in bone and tooth collagen is a well-established method for reconstructing the diets of past humans and animals (Katzenberg 2000; Sealy 2001). The most common use of this method is to determine the main sources of dietary protein in human diets. This is usually done by first measuring isotope values of fauna from the same site to establish baseline values for the region and time period. These background studies provide a comparative context for interpreting the human isotope data. This is especially important in areas where no isotope work has been previously undertaken, to ensure that there are no unusual isotope effects which would result in anomalous carbon or nitrogen isotope values in the humans of interest.


Carbon and nitrogen isotope values in bone collagen reflect the isotope values of dietary protein consumed over the lifetime of the individual, and particularly the last 10 to 20 years of life (Ambrose and Norr 1993). …

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