Prehistoric cooking versus accurate palaeotemperature records in shell midden constituents

Peter Müller, Philip T. Staudigel, Sean T. Murray, Robert Vernet, Jean Paul Barusseau, Hildegard Westphal, Peter K. Swart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


The reconstruction of pre-depositional cooking treatments used by prehistoric coastal populations for processing aquatic faunal resources is often difficult in archaeological shell midden assemblages. Besides limiting our knowledge of various social, cultural, economic and technological aspects of shell midden formation, unknown pre-depositional cooking techniques can also introduce large errors in palaeoclimate reconstructions as they can considerably alter the geochemical proxy signatures in calcareous skeletal structures such as bivalve shells or fish otoliths. Based on experimental and archaeological data, we show that carbonate clumped-isotope thermometry can be used to detect and reconstruct prehistoric processing methods in skeletal aragonite from archaeological shell midden assemblages. Given the temperature-dependent re-equilibration of clumped isotopes in aragonitic carbonates, this allows specific processing, cooking or trash dispersal strategies such as boiling, roasting, or burning to be differentiated. Besides permitting the detailed reconstruction of cultural or technological aspects of shell midden formation, this also allows erroneous palaeoclimate reconstructions to be avoided as all aragonitic shells subjected to pre-historic cooking methods show a clear alteration of their initial oxygen isotopic composition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number3555
JournalScientific reports
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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