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Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS)

Collagen is the most abundant protein in ancient animal tissues. After extraction, collagen can be broken down into its building blocks, peptides. The masses of these peptides can be measured with a MALDI mass spectrometer. Identifying specific combinations of peptide masses within a bone allows it to be assigned to a specific animal taxon. This ZooMS method has been applied successfully to archaeological samples from different time periods. The broader potential of ZooMS is twofold. Firstly, it changes our knowledge of human subsistence, including site use, species diversity, and carcass processing behaviour. Secondly, it can identify human remains that do not retain enough features to be identified morphologically. ZooMS has now successfully identified human remains from a range of Palaeolithic archaeological contexts.

© Karen Ruebens

Palaeolithic faunal assemblages are dominated by small non-diagnostic bone fragments. This means that for 70-90% of the bones recovered from an Palaeolithic site we do not know what type of animal (or human) they belonged to. Consequently, these small bone fragments are largely excluded from further analyses. 

Karen is currently part of a recently established ZooMS lab at the College de France in Paris where she is applying ZooMS to faunal collections from late Middle Palaeolithic and early Upper Palaeolithic assemblages across Europe. 

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