Identification of pastoral sites using stable nitrogen and carbon isotopes from bulk sediment samples: a case study in modern and archaeological pastoral settlements in Kenya

Ruth Shahack-Gross, Allison Simons, Stanley H. Ambrose

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

The identification of pastoral sites in the East African archaeological record is problematic. Recently, a method for the identification of degraded livestock enclosure sediments had been developed that takes into account the geoarchaeological indicators of micromorphology, phytolith concentrations and the mineral assemblages. This suite of indicators may not always be present in degraded livestock enclosure sediments. This study presents an additional indicator by which degraded livestock enclosure sediments may be identified, namely the isotopic composition of organic nitrogen measured on bulk sediment samples. We studied a highly controlled ethnoarchaeological sequence of abandoned Maasai livestock enclosure sediments sampled in Rombo area, southern Kenya. The results were compared to archaeological sediments from the Elmenteitan Pastoral Neolithic site of Sugenya, southwestern Kenya, radiocarbon dated to ca. 2000 BP (uncalibrated). The sediments from both sites were studied using all four types of analyses, i.e., micromorphology, mineralogy, phytolith concentrations, and stable carbon and nitrogen isotopic compositions on bulk sediment samples. The results show that in abandoned livestock enclosure sediments of known ages a significant enrichment in the heavy nitrogen isotope (15N) occurs, and that carbon isotopic compositions may be useful for differentiating cattle from caprine enclosures following their dietary preferences (i.e., grazers vs. browsers). A similar pattern of 15N enrichment is observed in sediments sampled within the site of Sugenya while sediments sampled outside the site's perimeter are generally depleted in 15N. The micromorphological, mineralogical and phytolith analyses support the conclusion that the sediments from within the site of Sugenya represent degraded livestock enclosure sediments. The carbon isotopic composition from the degraded dung deposits strongly suggests that livestock kept at Sugenya were cattle. Overall, this study presents new empirical data that can be used for the identification of livestock enclosures, and shows that the isotopic signatures and geoarchaeological indicators can preserve for at least two millennia.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)983-990
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Volume35
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2008
Externally publishedYes

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