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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Can a skeleton reveal a colonist's place of birth?

Yes, because the chemical composition of bone reflects diet during life. Collagen, the protein component of bone, is made up of amino acids whose large molecules contain mainly carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms. The carbon atoms in amino acids derive from the foods we eat. Corn, a plant native to the Americas and warmer climates, has a different chemical signature (carbon isotope ratio) than wheat or barley - dietary staples in the colder climates of Europe.

By testing the ratio of stable carbon isotopes in bone, scientists can tell a lot about personal origins. An English immigrant who died shortly after arriving here would have eaten mainly a European wheat-based diet. A settler born here would have grown up eating an American corn-based diet. An English-born colonist who lived in America for years would have eaten a mix of the two.

The Leavy Neck boy's isotope values indicate that he was a recent immigrant.