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An overall picture of the lives of people who lived in civilized societies in Ancient West Asia

2014.06.24

Unit Name:
Research Unit for Studying Prehistoric Diet and Matrimony by Isotope Analysis
Unit representative:
Professor Akira Tsuneki, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Unit members:
4 (3 faculty members, no postdoctoral fellows, 1 from other organizations)

Key words:
Neolithic period in West Asia, human remains, isotope ratio analysis, dietary habits, marital relationships

 

     Civilization originated in Ancient West Asia, or Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and their surrounding areas as we know them today, approximately 10,000 years ago. The research unit is involved in research to understand the overall picture of Ancient West Asian societies. Some people in Africa moved to West Asia. How did they settle there, start to grow crops, invent metallurgical technology and languages, and develop cities? The cultivation of wheat, brewing of beer and wine, and production of fermented food such as cheese also originated in West Asia. Research on remains in West Asia, which led to modern society, is the key to clarifying the basis of modern human society.

Reproduction of the dietary habits of people dating back 8,000 years by chemical analysis of buried human remains

     The history of a person is inscribed in his/her bones. For example, the ratio between nitrogen and carbon isotopes contained in the bones of a person, determined by isotope analysis, suggests what food was favored by the person. Our study, involving the bones of 240 people who lived around 6,300 B.C. excavated from the remains of a village located in Northwest Syria (Figure 1), along with animal bones and seeds, suggests that they primarily fed on wheat and cereal such as beans and their lives were supported by four kinds of livestock: sheep, goat, pigs, and cows. In addition, the above-mentioned ratio of isotopes varied depending on the burial place in a community cemetery, which suggests that meals were eaten in units of families (Figure 3). The bones of people also include information on their histories of illness and nutritional conditions during the developmental period.

Figure 1: Remains of Tell el-Kerkh in the Rouj Basin of Northwest Syria

Figure 1: Remains of Tell el-Kerkh in the Rouj Basin of Northwest Syria

Figure 2: Buried human remains from the Neolithic period

Figure 2: Buried human remains from the Neolithic period

Figure 3: Results of isotope analysis to determine dietary habits: Comparison of the burial site (left) and distribution of the isotopic ratio (right) to identify differences in the dietary habits of different families (created by Yu Itabashi, a student of the University of Tokyo Graduate School).

Figure 3: Results of isotope analysis to determine dietary habits: Comparison of the burial site (left) and distribution of the isotopic ratio (right) to identify differences in the dietary habits of different families (created by Yu Itabashi, a student of the University of Tokyo Graduate School).

Determination of marital relationships by isotope analysis of human bones despite the difficulty of DNA sampling

     Strontium isotopes contained in water and food are taken into the bodies of people and continue to be accumulated in the bones until they reach approximately 15 years old. The strontium isotopic ratio varies depending on the area in which the person lives. The results of our study suggested that all of the bones of adults excavated in Northwest Syria belonged to people who spent their early childhood in the Rouj Basin (north-south length: approximately 30 km, east-west length: 3 to 4 km). This means that, although there were economic exchanges between people living inside and outside the Rouj Basin, people in the basin may have married only those living in the same area or their relatives. Assumptions regarding such relationships are also made based on the morphological characteristics of bones that are heritable.

    The University of Tsukuba has a collection of bones from approximately 120 people who lived in the Neolithic period excavated from remains located in Northeast Iran (Figure 4). The research unit conducts isotope analysis of these bones to further examine the ancient civilization and society.

Figure 4: Human remains organized by Professors Akira Tagaya (Nagano College of Nursing) and Tsuneki along with Yuko Miyauchi (a graduate student of the University of Tsukuba)

Figure 4: Human remains organized by Professors Akira Tagaya (Nagano College of Nursing) and Tsuneki along with Yuko Miyauchi (a graduate student of the University of Tsukuba)

Social contributions and achievements
● Visual reproduction of the lives of prehistoric people using a new empirical analysis method
● Utilization of academically important information on areas that cannot be easily accessed
● Contribution to advancement in research on West Asian civilization

(Interviewed on June 20, 2013)


Research Administration/Management Office at U Tsukuba TEL 029-853-4434