3000 Years Ago, We Were What We Ate

Efate, VanuatuFor many of us, moving to a new house means recruiting a couple good friends to help pack and haul boxes. After a day or two of work, everyone shares a pizza while resting tired muscles at the new home. But 3000 years ago, enjoying a post-move meal may have required a little more planning. Early settlers of remote tropical islands in the Pacific had to bring along all resources needed for survival, including food, from their original homes overseas.

The Lapita people were early settlers of islands in the Pacific, called Remote Oceania (pictured below). When these people, whose culture and biology links to Southeast Asian islands, first decided to sail to the island Vanuatu, they brought domestic plants and animals—or what you might call a ‘transported landscape’—that allowed them to settle this previously uninhabited, less biodiverse (and less resource-available) area. However, the extent to which these settlers and their domestic animals relied on the transported Remote Oceanialandscape at Vanuatu during the initial settlement period, as opposed to relying on the native flora and fauna, remains uncertain.

To better understand the diet and lives of the Lapita people on Vanuatu, archaeologist authors of a study in PLOS ONE analyzed the stable carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur isotopes from the bones of ~ 50 adults excavated from the Lapita cemetery on Efate Island, Vanuatu.

Why look at isotopes in human remains? Depending on what we eat, we consume varying amounts of different elements, and these are ultimately deposited in our bones in ratios that can provide a sort of “dietary signature”; in this way, the authors can investigate the types of plants, animals, and fish that these early people ate.

For instance, plants incorporate nitrogen into their tissue as part of their life cycle, and as animals eat plants and other animals, nitrogen isotopes accumulate. The presence of these different ratios of elements may indicate whether a human or animal ate plants, animals, or both. Carbon ratios for instance differ between land and water organisms, and sulfur ratios also vary depending on whether they derive from water or land, where water organisms generally have higher sulfur values in comparison to land organisms.

Scientists used the information gained about the isotopes and compared it to a comprehensive analysis of stable isotopes from the settlers’ potential food sources, including modern and ancient plants and animals. They found that early Lapita inhabitants of Vanuatu may have foraged for food rather than relying on horticulture during the early stages of colonization. They likely grew and consumed food from the ‘transported landscape’ in the new soil, but appear to have relied more heavily on a mixture of reef fish, marine turtles, fruit bats, and domestic land animals.

The authors indicate that the dietary analysis may also provide insight into the culture of these settlers. For one, males displayed significantly higher nitrogen levels compared to females, which indicates greater access to meat. This difference in food distribution may support the premise that Lapita societies were ranked in some way, or may suggest dietary differences associated with labor specialization.  Additionally, the scientists analyzed the isotopes in ancient pig and chicken bones and found that carbon levels in the settlers’ domestic animals imply a diet of primarily plants; however, their nitrogen levels indicate that they may have roamed outside of kept pastures, eating foods such as insects or human fecal matter. This may have allowed the Lapita to allocate limited food resources to humans, rather than domestic animals.

Thousands of years later, the adage, “you are what you eat” or rather, “you were what you ate” still applies. As the Lapita people have shown us, whether we forage for food, grow all our vegetables, or order takeout more than we would like to admit, our bones may reveal clues about our individual lives and collective societies long after we are gone.

Citation: Kinaston R, Buckley H, Valentin F, Bedford S, Spriggs M, et al. (2014) Lapita Diet in Remote Oceania: New Stable Isotope Evidence from the 3000-Year-Old Teouma Site, Efate Island, Vanuatu. PLoS ONE 9(3): e90376. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090376

Image 1: Efate, Vanuatu by Phillip Capper

Image 2: Figure 1

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