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Department of Archaeology


Publication details for Dr Janet Montgomery

Montgomery, J. (2010). Passports from the past: Investigating human dispersals using strontium isotope analysis of tooth enamel. Annals Of Human Biology 37(3): 325-346.

Author(s) from Durham


Strontium isotopes are a powerful tool which provide information about provenance directly from the tissues of humans rather than the grave context and burial goods. Geographical variation in strontium isotopes is primarily controlled by the underlying geology but there are many other factors that need to be considered before migratory individuals can be identified. Consequently, despite many studies which have shown that the method works well, it is clear that much remains to be clarified and it will not work for every question or in every place. It rests on the assumption that people were sourcing their food locally and that there is a measurable strontium isotope difference between the place the person migrated from and the place they migrated to. As migrants may deliberately seek out familiar soil types and terrains in their new homeland, some questions surrounding major migration events may prove intractable for this technique. Other factors that can create heterogeneity or homogeneity leading to false positives or false negatives, such as human choices or coastal subsistence, are explored and the metabolism of strontium into human tooth enamel is discussed. Several models of land-use choices by humans are presented to highlight the subtleties inherent in the isotope data and these are used to interpret archaeological human isotope ratios from three studies.