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Compound-Specific Radiocarbon Dating of Essential and Non-Essential Amino Acids: Towards Determination of Dietary Reservoir Effects in Humans

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 February 2016

Shweta Nalawade-Chavan
Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Arts, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3QY, United Kingdom
James McCullagh
Chemistry Research Laboratory, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3TA, United Kingdom
Robert Hedges
Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Arts, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3QY, United Kingdom
Clive Bonsall
School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH8 9AG, United Kingdom
Adina Boroneanţ
‘Vasile Pârvan’ Institute of Archaeology, Romanian Academy, 11 Henri Coandą St., 010667 Bucharest, Romania
Christopher Bronk Ramsey
Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Arts, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3QY, United Kingdom
Thomas Higham
Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Arts, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3QY, United Kingdom


When humans consume foods from different radiocarbon reservoirs offset in age to the atmosphere, inaccuracies in the 14C date of bone collagen can occur. Mesolithic human skeletons from the Iron Gates section of the Lower Danube Valley have yielded reservoir offsets of up to ∼500 yr. This has been demonstrated through direct dating of bulk collagen from human bones and the remains of ungulate bone projectile points that were found embedded in them (Cook et al. 2001). We present improvements to a novel HPLC method for the detection and separation of underivatized amino acids using a water-only mobile phase free of organic or inorganic modifiers, ensuring very low carbon backgrounds. Our hypothesis is that direct 14C dating of single essential and non-essential amino acids might allow an improvement in the dating accuracy for reservoir-affected human bones. The method facilitates separation of less polar amino acids (mostly “essential”), currently not possible in the recently published protocol. We discuss methodological developments, demonstrate carbon backgrounds, and present analytical approaches to minimize their effects. We validate the precision and accuracy of the method by accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dating relatively modern and 14C-dead, known-age bone standards. Finally, we apply the method to the dating of single amino acids from bone samples with a proven ∼500–yr carbon reservoir effect from Mesolithic burials at the Iron Gates sites. We investigate whether differences can be found in AMS dates for essential and non-essential amino acids since, although contemporaneous, these are expected to derive from dietary sources with differing 14C reservoirs.

Copyright © 2013 by the Arizona Board of Regents on behalf of the University of Arizona 

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