Multivariate carbon and nitrogen stable isotope model for the reconstruction of prehistoric human diet

A. W. Froehle, C. M. Kellner, M. J. Schoeninger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

118 Scopus citations


Using a sample of published archaeological data, we expand on an earlier bivariate carbon model for diet reconstruction by adding bone collagen nitrogen stable isotope values (δ15N), which provide information on trophic level and consumption of terrestrial vs. marine protein. The bivariate carbon model (δ13Capatite vs. δ 13Ccollagen) provides detailed information on the isotopic signatures of whole diet and dietary protein, but is limited in its ability to distinguish between C4 and marine protein. Here, using cluster analysis and discriminant function analysis, we generate a multivariate diet reconstruction model that incorporates δ13Capatite, δ13Ccollagen, and δ15N holistically. Inclusion of the δ15N data proves useful in resolving protein-related limitations of the bivariate carbon model, and splits the sample into five distinct dietary clusters. Two significant discriminant functions account for 98.8% of the sample variance, providing a multivariate model for diet reconstruction. Both carbon variables dominate the first function, while δ15N most strongly influences the second. Independent support for the functions' ability to accurately classify individuals according to diet comes from a small sample of experimental rats, which cluster as expected from their diets. The new model also provides a statistical basis for distinguishing between food sources with similar isotopic signatures, as in a previously analyzed archaeological population from Saipan (see Ambrose et al.: AJPA 104(1997) 343-361). Our model suggests that the Saipan islanders' 13C-enriched signal derives mainly from sugarcane, not seaweed. Further development and application of this model can similarly improve dietary reconstructions in archaeological, paleontological, and primatological contexts. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2012. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)352-369
Number of pages18
JournalAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2012


  • apatite
  • bioarchaeology
  • cluster analysis
  • collagen
  • discriminant function analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Anthropology


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