What’s on your plate? The answer doesn’t just matter for your next dinner—it’s an issue of critical importance to archaeologists, who can infer everything from individual diets to large-scale population movements based on the chemistry of an ancient bone sample. Stable isotope analysis, the study of the nuances of elements in archaeological materials, can unlock all sorts of secrets about climate, diet, and the geographical origins of bones and other materials.
Stable isotopic analysis looks at the isotopes—atoms with extra or missing neutrons—of different elements. Unlike unstable isotopes such as carbon-14, which degrades over time, stable isotopes never decay. There are over 250 known stable isotopes, and 80 of the periodic table’s first 82 elements have them. Both