Stable carbon, nitrogen and sulphur isotope analysis of permafrost preserved human hair from rescue excavations (2009, 2010) at the precontact site of Nunalleq, Alaska

Kate Britton, Ellen McManus-Fry, Olaf Nehlich, Mike Richards, Paul M Ledger, Rick Knecht

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The reconstruction of diet and subsistence strategies is integral to understanding hunter-gatherer societies in the past, and is particularly of interest in high latitude environments as they can illuminate human-environmental interactions and adaptations. Until recently, very little archaeological research had been undertaken on the Bering Sea coasts of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and relatively little is known about precontact lifeways in this region. Here, we present stable carbon, nitrogen and sulphur isotope data from non-mortuary human hair excavated from Nunalleq (c. 1300 CE–1750 CE) – a precontact village site in Western Alaska. Now the focus of a major research project, excavations at Nunalleq began as a rescue excavation, as the site is eroding rapidly into the Bering Sea. Following an initial pilot study on cut strands representing a small number of individuals, a larger body of isotope data has now been generated from the first phase of the investigations of Nunalleq (2009, 2010). These new data, including sulphur isotope values, provide further evidence for the subsistence strategy at the site, including a mixed diet of marine and terrestrial foods (but likely dominated by salmonids). In addition, these new data from Nunalleq highlight some dietary variability amongst the inhabitants of the site. Analyses of additional longer hair strands suggest this variability may not be exclusively due to seasonal variation, and may evidence inter-personal dietary differences. Data from Nunalleq are compared to isotope data from previous studies of Thule-era and earlier Alaskan sites, and to isotope data from Thule sites in Canada and Greenland and the potential of ongoing and future research at the site is discussed, along with the implications for our understanding of Thule subsistence strategies and precontact lifeways on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)950-963
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports
Early online date10 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2018



  • palaeodiet
  • keratin
  • Alaska
  • hunter-gatherer-fisher
  • marine foragers
  • Thule
  • Precontact Yup'ik

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