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First isotopic study on high status diet and health in Islamic Portugal reveals sex-related difference in diet

Posted on 2 May 2019

Alice Toso of the Department of Archaeology publishes isotopic analysis of medieval Muslim populations

The modern-day city of Lisbon

Parts of what is modern day Portugal have been under Islamic rule during the early Middle Ages (8th-12th centuries). During this period, similarly to Spain, Muslim populations from north Africa and the Near East settled in the centre and south of the country leaving behind a wealth of knowledge, new crops and products, trading links as well as culinary influences which are still visible today in southern Portuguese cuisine. Although this period has largely contributed to the Portuguese history and heritage, no previous study has been carried out on the diet of the Muslim medieval population.
In this study, high status individuals buried at São Jorge Castle in Lisbon were isotopically analysed to explore the diet of the ruling Islamic elite and compared to contemporaneous lower status individuals from one of the Muslim urban cemeteries. High status males seemed to have access to different protein sources compared to the urban population, and interestingly, also compared to the high status females. The non-adults included in the study showed values in agreement with breastfeeding practices up until 2 years of age, while older non-adults had an overall diet that fitted with the females of the population. Paleopathological assessement of the skeletal remains found low prevalence of non-specific stress indicators confirming the overall good health of this population compared to other medieval lower status urban populations.
These data, with the evidence from historical sources and the archaeological studies on Lisbon Islamic domestic architecture suggests that the availability and use of space as well as a differential  family organization between social classes might have played an important role in food access and distribution
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