Stable carbon isotopes and prehistoric diets in the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The research reported in this thesis involves the measurement of stable carbon isotope ratios in human bone collagen as a means of reconstructing prehistoric diets. The sample population includes 67 skeletons of hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and agriculturalists from the Holocene of the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. The aims of the thesis include the testing, through direct quantitative measurements, of the validity of archaeological conclusions about prehistoric human behaviour in the Eastern Cape. Secondly, the usefulness and applicability of the 13c tracer technique is demonstrated in what is arguable the most complex situation an archaeologist is likely to encounter. The natural environment included c3 and c4 plants, browsing and grazing ungulates, and a marine component - all subject to environmental change over the period under study - while the cultural environment included three different subsistence systems plus transition stages between them. A third, or subsidiary goal, was to test whether burial practices can be correlated with subsistence economies in this situation - that is, whether ritual and dietary behaviour formed part of some larger cultural whole such as "pastoralists" - in order to be able to assign individuals to socio-economic groups on the basis of burial pattern. The results of the laboratory analysis realize these goals with varying degrees of success and with important consequences for the archaeologist.

Includes bibliographical references.