Strontium isotope used to investigate Neandertal mobility

Some heavy hitting names are behind an upcoming paper on Neandertal mobility, which is based upon an isotope analysis of a tooth. Peloponnese Neandertal ToothA couple of them that you may recognize are Katerina Harvati and Jean-Jacques Hublin. The AP press is saying this research is the first direct evidence the links a Neandertal and his or her range. The press is also quoting Harvarti saying Neandertal mobility is, “highly controversial.”

I appreciate this sort of creative research, but, like Clive Finlayson, I’m a bit confused about what is exactly controversial about considering Neandertals as highly mobile. They were large brained bipedal humans with an adequate arsenal of intelligence to create effective lithic technology. So why wouldn’t they be as mobile as modern day nomadic hunter gatherers? Clive even offered up a snarky remark that John Hawks caught,

“I would have been surprised if Neanderthals didn’t move at least 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) in their lifetime, or even in a year … We’re talking about humans, not trees.”

The specifics behind paper, “Strontium isotope evidence of Neanderthal mobility at the site of Lakonis, Greece using laser-ablation PIMMS,” is that the team sampled the enamel off of 40,000-year-old tooth, found in Greece’s southern Peloponnese region in 2002, for isotopes of strontium. Different regions and ecosystems have specific strontium isotopes in trapped sediment. The isotope is often taken up through the food chain and deposited into the tissues of the plants and animals that inhabit the area. Ultimately, as organisms are consumed, the strontium is absorbed into bodies.

Therefore, screening for the different levels of the isotope from a bone, and comparing that to levels of the isotope found elsewhere, can tell us where a person lived. One of my friends at UCSC began to apply this method in a forensic context, to help identify where in the world a person came from based upon unidentifiable remains.

In the current study, the authors compared ratios of two strontium isotopes (strontium-87 to strontium-86) to where the fossil was found and it didn’t match. They say that means the Neandertal’s diet was based upon some other region of world, and that this Neandertal had a radius of at least 20 kilometers.

Aside from the n=1 critique, I have one major concern that hasn’t yet been voiced. We know the site where a bone is fossilized is often not the exact site of death. And, we’re talking about 1 tooth, a small one too, from a 7-9 year old Neadertal. It is very possibly, even probable, that some natural cause, such as a river or carnivore transported the bone from the site of death to a much different location. If that’s the case, then that would mess up our understanding of mobility — since it wasn’t the actual seven year old who got up and walked 20 kilometers from his or her home base.

What I’m getting at is the tooth did the traveling.

Like I indicated before, we shouldn’t be surprised that Neandertals were capable of being mobile. There shouldn’t even be any controversy. I just don’t think this is isotope comparison the most perfect example that establishes Neanderal mobility… there coulda been a whole slew of natural effects that displaced the bone during 40,000 years and would affect the conclusions drawn by this team.

    RICHARDS, M., HARVATI, K., GRIMES, V., SMITH, C., SMITH, T., HUBLIN, J., KARKANAS, P., PANAGOPOULOU, E. (2007). Strontium isotope evidence of Neanderthal mobility at the site of Lakonis, Greece using laser-ablation PIMMS. Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2007.08.018

8 thoughts on “Strontium isotope used to investigate Neandertal mobility

  1. Well, the study is, uh, interesting. But I wouldn’t call it earthshaking, either. OTOH, there seems to be this idea that Neandertals never wandered very far. That could be what they’re *really* getting at.
    Anne G

  2. Surely we know from Neandertal physical structure that they were capable of traveling, but would they if it wasn’t necessary? That is perhaps more the point in investigating mobility. Even today (and gosh aren’t we mobile!) you can easily find people who have never traveled very far, because there was (1) no need, (2) no interest, (3) no incentive and the ones I think of most often were villagers along a canal in modern France with easy access to transportation. But on second thought and experience driving around the U.S., it’s not too hard to find people in the U.S. who haven’t been 50 miles down the road. So, snarky remarker, comments on whether mobility in the region under discussion would have been necessary would be more interesting than out-of-hand dismissal.

    Obviously as pointed out there is more than one explanation of the evidence under discussion but dismissal based on assumptions about human behavior seems inappropriate.

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