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Fishing for Dog Food: Ethnographic and Ethnohistoric Insights on the Freshwater Reservoir in Northeastern North America

  • William A Lovis (a1) and John P Hart (a2)


A review of current research reveals multiple lines of evidence suggesting that no single freshwater reservoir offset (FRO) correction can be applied to accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS) ages obtained on carbonized food residue from cooking vessels. Systematically evaluating the regional presence, magnitude, and effects of a freshwater reservoir effect (FRE) is a demonstrably difficult analytic problem given the variation of ancient carbon reservoirs in both space and time within water bodies, and which should be performed in advance of AMS assays. In coastal and estuarine contexts, a priori partitioning FRE from known marine reservoir effects (MRE) is also necessary to eliminate potential mixed effects. Likewise, any FRE varies based on the proportional mix of resources producing the residues and the ancient carbon uptake of those products. Processing techniques are a significant component of assessing potential FRE, and each pot/cooking vessel is therefore an independent context requiring analytic evaluation. In northeastern North America, there is little ethnohistoric/ethnographic evidence for fish boiling/stewing in ceramic cooking vessels; rather, fish were more often dried, smoked, or cooked for immediate consumption on open fires. Assays of fatty acids extracted from prehistoric vessel fabrics even on known fishing sites reveals no evidence for fish in the food mix. These observations suggest that the likelihoods of FRE in carbonized food residue in northeastern North America is therefore low, and that assays potentially suffering from FRO are minimal. In turn, this suggests that AMS ages from carbonized food residues are reliable unless analytically demonstrated otherwise for specific cases, and should take primacy over ages on other associated materials that have historically been employed for critical threshold chronological events.


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