SFU archaeology professor Mike Richards is the newly named Canada Research Chair in Archaeological Science.

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How chemical 'clues' in diet can help identify human remains—and climate changes

June 22, 2017
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SFU archaeology professor Mike Richards is studying how the chemical signatures from food and water consumed by humans and animals can provide clues to identifying human remains—and can also shed light on changes in climate.

The newly named Canada Research Chair holder in Archaeological Science has established a lab at SFU to analyze isotopes, which are forms of chemical elements that have been digested and incorporated into body tissues. 

“These chemical signatures record the diet, as well as the geographical location and climate when that tissue was formed for humans and animals,” explains Richards.

“All of our body tissues have these isotope records of where we have lived, with our teeth telling us about where we lived as children, and our bones about where we lived as adults. We can also tell what people’s diets were made of over their lifetimes."

The team’s investigations will focus on bones and teeth, which are resilient to decay or decomposition. They are also the most commonly found remains recovered from archaeological sites. 

Researchers will use next-generation isotope ‘fingerprinting’ methods to develop isotope sourcing of human and animal remains, and isotope records of past climates recorded in animal bones.

One project will enable his group to work closely with the Vancouver Coroner’s office and the RCMP to resolve a number of open cases where unidentified human remains have been found. 

Richards recently began collaborating with the coroner’s office in the use of radiocarbon dating and isotope analyses for forensic case work.The work will also set the framework for future collaborations on new human remains discoveries.

Meanwhile, creating an isotope map will also provide B.C.’s ecologists and biologists with a baseline to track animal migration patterns.

A second project will enable a new isotope-based method of understanding climates and climate change, which will be of particular use in areas of Canada where the need to establish past baseline climate values will help to understand how current climates may be different.

Richards has previously used advanced isotope analysis techniques to study the diets and interactions of hunter-gatherer and farming societies of central Europe during the new Stone Age.

He is also known for earlier research focusing on the expansion of modern humans into Eurasia, and the spread of agriculture across Europe and Asia during the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods.

Richards’ experience with isotope analysis in archaeology and related fields spans two decades and has led to more than 200 papers.

After completing doctoral research and a postdoctoral fellowship at Oxford University, he became one of the youngest full professors in archaeology to be appointed in the U.K., with a professorship at the University of Bradford.  

In 2004, he was invited to establish an archaeological science group, including five labs, at the newly formed Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Five years later he moved to UBC, establishing a research group and lab and securing significant SSHRC funding. 

Richards was named a 2014 Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada for outstanding scholarly and scientific achievement. Last year, he joined SFU's Department of Archaeology, where he plans to continue pushing the boundaries of paleoanthropology and archaeology.