On Tuesday, March 28, 2006, Dr. Robert Tykot spoke to a gathering of faculty and students as part of the Center for Archaeological Sciences (CAS) 2005-2006 Lecture Series. Tykot, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, delivered a lecture entitled They are What They Ate: Bone Chemistry and Ancient Diets.
Following an introduction by Dr. Elizabeth Reitz, CAS Director and Professor of Anthropology at UGA, Tykot explained his research using isotope analysis as it applies to creating a better understanding of subsistence strategies in the past.
Elements, such as Carbon (C) and Nitrogen (N,) exist in different forms with a varying number of particles called neutrons. As neutrons are added or subtracted, the atomic mass of the element changes while the chemical properties (based on the unchanging number of protons and electrons) stay the same. These different forms of the same element are called isotopes. Using an instrument called a mass spectrometer, chemists are able to determine the ratio of isotopes in dissolved materials.
Different food sources (rice in comparison to millet, corn in comparison to seafood) have different ratios of C and N isotopes. After being eaten, the C and N from food is slowly incor-porated into the body. Tykot’s research is based on the understanding that the isotope ratios of C and N in the body will be different depending on the type of food eaten.
Using his background in chemistry and knowledge of isotopes, Tykot analyzes archaeological material (namely bone and tooth enamel) to determine the types of food an individual ate during their life.
During his CAS lecture, Tykot took his audience on a search for evidence of maize consumption throughout the Americas, examining, through isotope analysis of skeletal remains, the diet of people who inhabited archaeological sites from CentralAmerica (where maize was first domesticated) to the southern tip of South America (where maize could not be grown). Tykot also spoke about his work around the globe, including tracing the spread of rice in China and the paradoxical case of Crete, an island where seafood, plentiful though it may be, was not a major source of food.
At the end of his lecture, Tykot took questions from the audience and joined a reception hosted by the members of CAS.
Tykot’s work analyzing archaeological material using modern chemistry techniques, is illustrative of the purpose of CAS - to foster interaction between archaeology and other scientific fields so that a better understanding of the past may be reached.
Members of CAS include UGA faculty and staff from Anthropology, Art History, Classics, Geology, and the Georgia Museum of Natural History. For undergraduate students interested in Archaeology, CAS offers an Interdisciplinary Certificate Program in Archaeological Sciences.
More information about CAS and its programs can be found at http://www.uga.edu/archsciences/.
-Michael Kennerty, 29 March 2006