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Change of Diet of the Greenland Vikings Determined from Stable Carbon Isotope Analysis and 14C Dating of Their Bones

  • Jette Arneborg (a1), Jan Heinemeier (a2), Niels Lynnerup (a3), Henrik L Nielsen (a2), Niels Rud (a2) and Árný E Sveinbjörnsdóttir (a4)...

Abstract

Bone samples from the Greenland Viking colony provide us with a unique opportunity to test and use 14C dating of remains of humans who depended upon food of mixed marine and terrestrial origin. We investigated the skeletons of 27 Greenland Norse people excavated from churchyard burials from the late 10th to the middle 15th century. The stable carbon isotopic composition (δ13C) of the bone collagen reveals that the diet of the Greenland Norse changed dramatically from predominantly terrestrial food at the time of Eric the Red around AD 1000 to predominantly marine food toward the end of the settlement period around AD 1450. We find that it is possible to 14C-date these bones of mixed marine and terrestrial origin precisely when proper correction for the marine reservoir effect (the 14C age difference between terrestrial and marine organisms) is taken into account. From the dietary information obtained via the δ13C values of the bones We have calculated individual reservoir age corrections for the measured 14C ages of each skeleton. The reservoir age corrections were calibrated by comparing the 14C dates of 3 highly marine skeletons with the 14C dates of their terrestrial grave clothes. The calibrated ages of all 27 skeletons from different parts of the Norse settlement obtained by this method are found to be consistent with available historical and archaeological chronology. The evidence for a change in subsistence from terrestrial to marine food is an important clue to the old puzzle of the disappearance of the Greenland Norse, obtained here for the first time by measurements on the remains of the people themselves instead of by more indirect methods like kitchen-midden analysis.

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References

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