Zinc isotopes in Late Pleistocene fossil teeth from a Southeast Asian cave setting preserve paleodietary information

Nicolas Bourgon, Klervia Jaouen, Anne Marie Bacon, Klaus Peter Jochum, Elise Dufour, Philippe Duringer, Jean Luc Ponche, Renaud Joannes-Boyau, Quentin Boesch, Pierre Olivier Antoine, Manon Hullot, Ulrike Weis, Ellen Schulz-Kornas, Manuel Trost, Denis Fiorillo, Fabrice Demeter, Elise Patole-Edoumba, Laura L. Shackelford, Tyler E. Dunn, Alexandra ZachwiejaSomoh Duangthongchit, Thongsa Sayavonkhamdy, Phonephanh Sichanthongtip, Daovee Sihanam, Viengkeo Souksavatdy, Jean Jacques Hublin, Thomas Tütken

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios of collagen from bone and dentin have frequently been used for dietary reconstruction, but this method is limited by protein preservation. Isotopes of the trace element zinc (Zn) in bioapatite constitute a promising proxy to infer dietary information from extant and extinct vertebrates. The 66Zn/ 64Zn ratio (expressed as δ 66Zn value) shows an enrichment of the heavy isotope in mammals along each trophic step. However, preservation of diet-related δ 66Zn values in fossil teeth has not been assessed yet. Here, we analyzed enamel of fossil teeth from the Late Pleistocene (38.4-13.5 ka) mammalian assemblage of the Tam Hay Marklot (THM) cave in northeastern Laos, to reconstruct the food web and assess the preservation of original δ 66Zn values. Distinct enamel δ 66Zn values of the fossil taxa (δ 66Zn carnivore < δ 66Zn omnivore < δ 66Zn herbivore) according to their expected feeding habits were observed, with a trophic carnivore-herbivore spacing of +0.60‰ and omnivores having intermediate values. Zn and trace element concentration profiles similar to those of modern teeth also indicate minimal impact of diagenesis on the enamel. While further work is needed to explore preservation for settings with different taphonomic conditions, the diet-related δ 66Zn values in fossil enamel from THM cave suggest an excellent long-term preservation potential, even under tropical conditions that are well known to be adverse for collagen preservation. Zinc isotopes could thus provide a new tool to assess the diet of fossil hominins and associated fauna, as well as trophic relationships in past food webs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4675-4681
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number9
StatePublished - Mar 3 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. We thank K. Schilling and B. Brumme (Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig) as well as O. Tombret (UMR 7209 AASPE) for technical support; S. Steinbrenner (Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig) who performed the C and N analysis; R. Mundry (Department of Primatology, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig) for his valuable help and insight with the LMM; R. Barr, C. Zickert, L. Därr, A. Salzer, and L. Schymanski (Multimedia Department, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig) for their help with pictures and figure presentation; Christine Lefèvre, Joséphine Lesur, and Aurélie Verguin of the UMR 7209 (AASPE), Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, in Paris, for the agreement and access to the mammal collection; and M. Sponheimer and P. Telouk for their helpful discussions. We would like to acknowledge the support and thank the Max Planck Society and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (“PALÄODIET” Project 378496604) for funding this study. T.T. and K.J. received funding by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program Grant Agreements 681450 and 803676, respectively. Funding for the excavation of the Marklot cave in 2015 was provided by the University of Strasbourg (Unistra/EOST UMR 7516) and the Unité Propre de Recherche (UPR) 2147 of CNRS Dynamique de l’évolution humaine, France, and the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Finally, we would like also to thank V.S. and S. Luangaphay of the Department of National Heritage, Ministry of Information and Culture in Vientiane, Laos, for their authorization to study the Marklot fauna.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.


  • Diagenesis
  • Diet
  • Stable isotopes
  • Trophic ecology
  • Zinc
  • Hominidae/physiology
  • Fossils
  • Asia, Southeastern
  • Animals
  • Diet, Paleolithic
  • Zinc Isotopes/analysis
  • Caves
  • Collagen/chemistry
  • Tooth/chemistry

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Journal Article


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