Freshwater fish are an important part of the diet of many peoples around the world, but it has been unclear when fish became an important part of the year-round diet for early humans.
A new study by an international team of researchers, including Erik Trinkaus, Ph.D., professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, shows it may have happened in China as far back as 40,000 years ago.
Chemical analysis of the protein collagen, using ratios of the isotopes of nitrogen and sulfur in particular, can show whether such fish consumption was an occasional treat or a regular food item.
The isotopic analysis of a bone from one of the earliest modern humans in Asia, the 40,000 year old skeleton from Tianyuan Cave in the Zhoukoudian region of China (near Beijing), by an international team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, the Graduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and Washington University in Saint Louis has shown that this individual was a regular fish consumer.
Michael Richards of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology explains "Carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of the human and associated faunal remains indicate a diet high in animal protein, and the high nitrogen isotope values suggest the consumption of freshwater fish." To confirm this inference the researchers measured the sulphur isotope values of terrestrial and freshwater animals around the Zhoukoudian area and of the Tianyuan human.
This analysis provides the first direct evidence for the substantial consumption of aquatic resources by early modern humans in China.
Since this occurs before there is consistent evidence for effective fishing gear, the shift to more fish in the diet likely reflects greater pressure from an expanding population at the time of modern human emergence across Eurasia.
- Yaowu Hu, Hong Shang, Haowen Tong, Olaf Nehlich, Wu Liu, Chaohong Zhao, Jincheng Yu, Changsui Wang, Erik Trinkaus, Michael P. Richards. Stable isotope dietary analysis of the Tianyuan 1 early modern human. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009; 106 (27): 10971 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0904826106
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