Lactase persistence and the early Cultural History of Europe  
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OxfordThe University of Oxford is renowned for the quality and diversity of its research, and the Research Laboratory for Archaeology (RLA) has been a leader for 50 years in developing archaeological science. This research has included dating (especially radiocarbon and luminescence), artefact analysis, and more recently palaeodietary reconstruction using stable isotopes. In general the specialisation has been to the application of physics and chemistry to archaeological issues. For this project, the resources of the Earth Sciences Department will be linked with that of the RLA, as is already the case for an ongoing collaboration on Calcium isotopes.

ESR10 Isotopic evidence from human milk consumption
Prof. Robert Hedges
Milk is a major source of dietary calcium, but is one trophic level above the other major source of dietary calcium: plants. Calcium, unlike most isotopes, is isotopically discriminated against during incorporation into milk or bone. Since individuals with high milk consumption obtain most of their calcium from milk (or its products) rather than from plant foods, the calcium isotopic signature of their bones is distinguishable. Analysis of human archaeological bone therefore enables the quantity of milk consumed to be estimated, and is especially sensitive to fairly modest levels of consumption. The ESR will analyze human bone from selected cemeteries and settlement sites (ER1), and compare with cattle and sheep bone (ESR1), in order to estimate the level of milk consumption on an individual and community basis, so that milk consumption can be compared over time, space and cultures. This will provide fundamental data for understanding the genetics and demography of subsistence dairying, and its accessibility to different age/sex groups. In particular, the relationship between milk consumption, at an individual level, and the genetic status, as well as cultural practices (e.g. milk consumption by children, ER1) will be explored through comparison with aDNA results on the same material (ESR4). The possible confounding effects of diagenetic change (so far shown to be minimal), will be studied (ESR13). The levels of milk consumption established need to be integrated with bone collagen stable isotope information (ESR11) especially from data which relate to the fraction of dietary protein of animal origin (i.e. from 15N measurements). This project will sample human bone for which DNA evidence has been gathered ESR4, guided by ER1 , use diagenetic evidence to interpret results ESR13, integrate results with ESR1, and the reside cluster (ESR7, ESR8, ESR9,) and report to ESR12 and ESR2.

Prof. Robert Hedges is Deputy Director of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology , and is known for his pioneering work in radiocarbon dating using AMS, stable isotope analysis and bone diagenesis. He has recently developed the calcium isotope method for evaluating sources of dietary calcium from milk and plants. His main current interest is the relationship between molecular measurements, ancient diet, and palaeodemography. He has supervised over 20 PhD students in archaeological science.

Prof. Gideon Henderson (Earth Sciences) is a distinguished isotope geochemist with a collaborative interest in archaeological issues.

Dr L Reynard is a recent postdoctoral researcher, currently working with Hedges and Henderson on questions of Ca isotopy and milk consumption.


The collaboration is supported by the full range of facilities consistent with a top rank UK university, in terms of libraries, communications, and technical support. Intellectually, the research environment is embedded in, on the one hand, an Archaeology School with the maximum research grade, and on the other hand, a Geology Department with specialisation in geochemistry.


Hedges REM, Reynard LM, Nitrogen isotopes and the trophic level of humans in archaeology (2007) Journal of Archaeological Science 34:1240-1251 

2. Chu N-C, et al, Establishing the potential of Ca isotopes as proxy for consumption of dairy products (2006) Applied Geochemistry 21:1656-1667 

3. Hedges REM, et al. Collagen turnover in the adult femoral mid-shaft: Modeled from anthropogenic radiocarbon tracer measurements. (2007) American Journal of Physical Anthropology 133:808-816