2012 D.E. Nelson, J. Heinemeier, N. Lynnerup, Á.E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir, and J. Arneborg 93
Our understanding of the Norse dietary adaptations
to their Greenlandic home comes primarily
from sparse historical records, from what is known
of the Norse dietary economy in other North Atlantic
lands, and from zooarchaeological examinations of
the animal bones found in the various excavations
of Norse Greenlandic sites which have taken place
over the past century (a detailed review of this information
is given by Arneborg et al. 2012a [this
volume]). There are very definite limitations to the
information provided by all these sources. In particular,
it is difficult to advance from qualitative to
quantitative dietary reconstruction and it is impossible
to obtain information on the diets of individuals.
However a limited, early study has revealed the
potential of isotopic analysis of human bone in this
respect (Arneborg et al. 1999, Lynnerup 1998). We
know the Greenlandic Norse could not routinely, if
at all, grow cereal crops for bread or even for beer;
that they had available to them enormous amounts
of wild game (e.g., the migrating seals); and that
they raised cattle, sheep, goats, horses, and even
pigs which they had imported from their homelands
(Arneborg et al. 2012a [this volume]). What we don't
know is the extent to which these animals played a
role in the basic Norse dietary economy. Was their
diet based on agrarian pastoralism supplemented
by hunting wild animals, or was it hunting supplemented
by the traditional foods provided by their
domestic animals? Did this differ from site to site or
from person to person? It is quantitative questions
of this sort that one can hope to address through the
use of isotopic dietary analysis. In circumstances
in which the alternative dietary reservoirs can be
characterized by their stable isotope values, it may
be possible to analyze the remnant tissues of a human
consumer and thus obtain direct information of
the relative importance of the two reservoirs to that
human’s diet. These concepts have been widely used
for dietary reconstruction of medieval populations
(e.g., Bocherens et al. 1991; Herrscher et al. 2001;
Mays 1997; Müldner and Richards 2005, 2007; Polet
and Katzenberg 2003; Richards et al.1998, 2006;
Rutgers et al. 2009; Salamon et al. 2008) as well as
Stone Age populations (e.g., Olsen and Heinemeier
2007, Olsen et al. 2010), and described in the archaeological
and scientific literature (cf. Ambrose 1993,
Ambrose and Katzenberg 2000, Bourbou et al. 2011,
Hedges and Reynard 2007, Kelly 2000, Lidén 1995,
Richards and Hedges 1999, Robbins et al. 2010,
Schoeninger and DeNiro 1984, Schoeninger and
Moore 1992, Wada et al. 1991) and in other papers
in this volume (e.g., Nelson et al. 2012a). So there is
no need here for a further repetition of the principles
and methodology, as it is covered by numerous
reviews (e.g., Grupe and Peters 2007, Katzenberg
2007, Lee-Thorp 2008). Even so, before we proceed
An Isotopic Analysis of the Diet of the Greenland Norse
D. Erle Nelson1, Jan Heinemeier2, Niels Lynnerup3, Árný E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir6, and Jette Arneborg4,5,*
Abstract - Our understanding of the Norse dietary adaptations to their Greenlandic home comes primarily from sparse
historical records, from what is known of the Norse dietary economy in other North Atlantic lands, and from zooarchaeological
examinations of the animal bones found in the various excavations of Norse Greenlandic sites which have taken
place over the past century. To obtain more detailed information on the diets of the Norse settlers in Greenland, measures
of the stable carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) values of human bone collagen have been made for 80 individuals from an
existing collection of Norse skeletal material. The material is from five churchyards in the Norse Eastern Settlement and two
churchyards in the Western Settlement. These data are interpreted with the aid of similar data obtained for the wild fauna
of Greenland, for the Norse domestic animals and for a number of Thule Culture individuals of about the same time period.
It is clear that application of the isotopic dietary method to Greenland is complex, but even so, it can provide very useful
information. It is also clear that the isotopic method provides reliable information on Greenlandic diet even at the level
of the individual. For the two Norse settlements taken as a whole, the basic dietary economy was based about as much on
hunting as it was on their domestic animals. We see no evidence for real differences between the diets of men and women or
between individuals of different ages. The large individual differences are then likely connected to status or circumstance,
but not to sex or age.
Special Volume 3:93–118
Greenland Isotope Project: Diet in Norse Greenland AD 1000–AD 1450
Journal of the North Atlantic
1FRSC Professor Emeritus, Simon Fraser University, Department of Archaeology. Burnaby, BC, Canada. 2AMS 14C Dating
Centre, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Aarhus University, Ny Munkegade 120, DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark.
3Laboratory of Biological Anthropology, Section of Forensic Pathology, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark.
4Danish Middle Ages and Renaissance, Research and Exhibitions, The National Museum of Denmark Frederiksholms Kanal
12, DK-1220 Copenhagen. 5Institute of Geography, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.
6Institute of Earth Science, University of Iceland, Sturlugate 7, S-101, Reykjavík, Iceland. *Corresponding author - Jette.
94 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 3
to these analyses, we should explicitly examine just
what it is that we may be able to determine from
these isotopic analyses.
In Greenland, the Norse dietary possibilities
fall neatly into general categories that are known
to have characteristic isotopic signatures: the terrestrial
and the marine biospheres (Arneborg et al.
1999). As grain agriculture was not possible and as
there were no wild plant food resources that could
play a primary role in human diet, the Norse diet
was based on meat and fat from the terrestrial and
marine reservoirs. A little carbohydrate would have
come from the milk products of their domestic
animals and perhaps a very little more from wild
berries and a few plants, but animal protein and
fat provided essentially all human dietary energy
requirements (Arneborg et al. 2012a [this volume]).
In such dietary situations, the protein consumed far
exceeds that needed for human tissue replacement,
and there is no need for the body to synthesize even
nonessential amino acids (cf Hedges 2004). Since
fat plays no direct role in protein construction, human
bone collagen is then directly produced from
the protein in the diet, and the isotopic signatures
of the meat consumed are directly reflected in that
of the bone collagen (Ambrose 1993, Ambrose and
Norr 1993, Hedges 2004, Tieszen and Fagre 1993).
This is a quantitative observation, in that consumption
of protein from two isotopically different reservoirs
will result in bone collagen isotopic signatures
scaled linearly between those of the two reservoirs
(e.g., Arneborg et al. 1999, Fischer et al. 2007).
Isotopic measurement of the bone collagen of an
individual human will then provide direct information
on the relative amounts of protein from the two
food reservoirs that have contributed to the formation
of that bone collagen. Bone growth takes place
rapidly during the first decade of human life, slows a
little, and then spurts again during the second decade
(e.g., Hedges et al. 2007). After maturation, the turnover
time of the collagen in compact (cortical) bone
is slow. The isotopic values for the collagen measured
are the end result of this formation process.
They thus reflect long-term protein consumption,
especially that in the first two decades of life, with
a very gradual change thereafter as the collagen is
gradually renewed (Geyh 2001, Hedges and Reynard
2007, Hedges et al. 2007, Wild et al. 2000). By contrast,
collagen from non-compact (trabecular) bone
from adult humans represents the average diet over a
much shorter period, about four years (Martin et al.
These considerations need to be borne in mind
when interpreting bone collagen isotopic data. It is
the protein consumed that is followed and in particular
that consumed when the collagen is formed
or replaced. The consequence for dietary reconstruction
is that we can obtain direct information on the
primary foodstuffs which supported Norse existence
in Greenland. That is not to say that other foods were
unimportant; if all the complex requirements of diet
(e.g., vitamins and minerals) cannot be routinely
met, human society cannot exist. Consumption of
these other necessities is not reflected in the collagen
isotopic values, nor are foods consumed during
times of scarcity. While emergency foods may maintain
life, they are not the basis for a sustainable dietary
economy and they won’t be represented in the
bone collagen signature. In times of food scarcity,
protein will be channeled to energy production and
not to bone collagen synthesis. The isotopic method,
if applicable in Greenland, seems ideally suited to
direct examination of the fundamental basis of the
Norse diet without confusion from the subsidiary
With these considerations in mind, we can then
pose the questions we would hope to be able to address
with this form of analysis, beginning with the
1) Are the isotopic signatures of the two food
reservoirs of interest here (the terrestrial and
marine biospheres) sufficiently characteristic
to provide reliable information on Norse
2) To what extent did the Norse community
as a whole rely on the terrestrial reservoir (in
effect, their agriculture) and to what extent on
hunting the marine mammals?
3) Were there differences between the two
Norse settlements in this reliance?
4) Were there differences between sites in the
same settlement? Is there any evidence for
5) Were their differences between individuals?
Can any such differences be correlated
with age, sex, or status?
6) Can we learn anything about the nature of
the food consumed?
In the previous parts of this over-all study, we
have examined in detail the isotopic signatures of
the domestic and wild animals which formed the basis
of Norse subsistence (Nelson et al. 2012a, 2012c
[this volume]). This approach was extended to a
detailed analysis of Greenlandic Thule Culture diet,
both as a test of the isotopic method in Greenland
and of our understanding of their dietary economy
(Gulløv 2012 [this volume], Nelson et al. 2012b [this
volume]). Here, we use this accumulated information
together with the isotopic data obtained on the
remains of the Norse themselves to address, to the
extent possible, the questions posed above. As in
the study of the Thule Culture population, we make
no attempt in this paper to integrate these results
2012 D.E. Nelson, J. Heinemeier, N. Lynnerup, Á.E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir, and J. Arneborg 95
into the extensive literature on Norse adaptation in
Greenland; this integration will be done in the last
paper of this volume (Arneborg et al. 2012b [this
volume]). We choose to let the isotopic results and
interpretations stand on their own, using only the
general faunal lists from archaeological excavation
as a guide (e.g., McGovern 1985). Evaluation of the
utility of this method can then be made separately,
without the confusion of technical detail; again, this
contextual evaluation will be done in the last paper
of this special volume (Arneborg et al. 2012b [this
Samples and Methods
As discussed in the introductory
review of this project (Arneborg et
al. 2012a [this volume]), excavations
over the past century have
uncovered the remains of more than
400 Norse individuals from cemeteries
associated with the Christian
churches in the two settlements.
No pagan graves are known. Consequences
of importance here are
that little information on status or
chronology are available from the
graves and that the Norse diet would probably not
have included their horses; Christian burial did not
include grave goods, and consumption of horse meat
was associated with pagan ritual and hence forbidden
by the new religion (Egardt 1981).
Table 1 summarizes the detailed descriptions of
the sites of importance here (see also Figs. 1, 2).
As the examination in Arneborg et al. (2012a [this
volume]) shows, most excavations included in the
study were undertaken in times during which archaeological
excavation and curatorial methods were
Table 1. The sites from where the samples of this study were collected. All sites are
thoroughly described in Arneborg et al. 2012a. [this volume]. In Column 1, the Danish
National Museum site ID’s are reported together with the Norse names (in italics) and the
modern Greenlandic names. Site GR refers to the Greenland National Museum Ancient
Monument number. Excavators refer to the excavator responsible for the excavations. Year
is year of excavation.
Site Site GR Excavators Year
Ø 66, Igaliku kujalleq 60V2–IV–611 Aa. Roussell 1926
Ø 47, Gardar, Igaliku 60V2-IV-621 P. Nørlund & Aa. Roussell 1926
Ø 111, Herjolfsnes, Ikigaat 59V1–IV–502 P. Nørlund 1921
Ø 149, Narsarsuaq 60V2–IV–504 C.L. Vebæk 1945
Ø 29a, Brattahlid, Qassiarsuk 61V3-III-539 J. Meldgaard & K.J. Krogh 1961
V 51, Sandnes, Kilaarsarfik 64V2-III-511 P. Nørlund & Aa. Roussell 1930
V 7 , Anavik, Ujarassuit 64V2–IV-515 Aa. Roussell & E. Knuth 1932
H.C. Kapel & J. Arneborg 1982
Figure 1. Map of the Eastern Settlement with the sites included in the study. White is the inland ice, blue is the sea, and
yellow is the land. The individual sites are described in detail in Arneborg et al. 2012a (this volume).
96 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 3
very different from those of the present, a factor that
certainly has impacted this study. While a potential
population sample size of several hundred human
individuals is large for an isotopic dietary study,
it was only possible to include some 80, as most
remains were found to be unsuitable for isotopic
measurement. Much of the bone material was badly
degraded, and as will be seen, that caused great diffi
culties in project execution and placed limitations
on the outcome.
In particular, it was evident at the project outset
that some bones had previously been treated with a
consolidating or preservative substance. This treatment
was immediately obvious in a few cases, but
the full extent of the issue only gradually became
clear. It eventually became evident that a visual
examination of the bone itself was inadequate, and
that it was necessary to use a microscope to examine
both the bone and even the material removed
for measurement. Preservatives were thus seen to
have been applied to bones from the sites Ø111 Herjolfsnes,
Ø47 Gardar, Ø66, V7 Anavik, and Ø29a
Brattahlid. There may also be preservative on a few
bones each from V51 Sandnes and Ø149. The time
sequence of excavation (see Table 1) suggests that
this method of bone consolidation was passed from
one archaeologist to the next. Despite considerable
effort, it proved impossible to obtain information on
the method or on the nature of the material applied.
No records of it could be found, and various discussions
yielded conflicting information. A casual
conversation (P. Bennike, Laboratory of Biological
Anthropology, Section of Forensic Pathology, University
of Copenhagen, Denmark, pers. comm.) did
reveal that at some time long after excavation, some
bones had been consolidated in the laboratory with
Bedacryl. Bedacryl is the trade name for an acrylic
used for a time in the latter part of the 20th century
for bone consolidation. This commercial product
would not have been available to the earlier excavators,
except for the excavators of the Tjodhilde Ø29a
churchyard. Since we could deduce that, at least in
some instances, a preservative was applied to the
bone during excavation, some other substance must
also have been used.
As the extent of the preservative issue grew
evident, it became important to identify these
substance(s). A side study was made on samples
of the preservative material that could clearly be
removed from a few of the bones without including
any of the bone itself (Takahashi et al. 2002). As
well, for a few long bones with thick cortexes cov-
Figure 2. Map of the Western Settlement with the sites included in the study. White is the inland ice, blue is the sea, and
yellow is the land. The individual sites are described in detail in Arneborg et al. 2012a (this volume).
2012 D.E. Nelson, J. Heinemeier, N. Lynnerup, Á.E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir, and J. Arneborg 97
ered with preservative, samples of the preservative
itself were taken, the bone surface was then removed
by milling, and two samples of bone were then taken
from successive milled layers in attempts to physically
reach bone at a depth to which the preservative
had not penetrated.
Because of the nature of the collection and the
problems with preservatives, there was little chance
to choose specific bone elements for measurement.
Since different bones develop and mature at different
stages of human growth, any dietary change that
occurs during this period will be reflected. In a few
cases, it was possible to test the magnitude of this
possible effect as both the cranium (the predominant
element in the collections, reflecting the collection
preferences of decades past) and one or more long
bones were present for the same individual.
No other sampling strategies were employed; we
simply measured every individual for which a suitable
sample could be obtained. Table 2 gives a description
of all samples taken from each site, including
information on the sex and age of the individual
as determined in another study (Lynnerup 1998).
Table 2 also includes some samples of the preservative
itself as taken for the preservative study.
It should be noted that the samples labeled #1 to
#28 are remnant bone material from the earlier study
(Arneborg et al. 1999). On close inspection, some
of these showed signs of preservative treatment, a
potential source of problems for isotopic analysis. In
a few cases, it was possible to obtain fresh samples
from better bones of the same individuals.
The bone selected for measurement was sampled
with small, slow-speed drills and mills. To the
extent possible, samples were taken from a compact
cortical portion of the bone. Typically, the bone
surface was milled to remove material to a depth of
about 1 mm, and then 2-mm-diameter holes were
drilled to remove about 50–100 mg of bone as drillings,
which constituted the sample. These were collected
as drilled on clean Al foil and transferred to
baked glass vials for shipment to the isotope laboratory
at Simon Fraser University. There, the high
molecular-weight remnant collagen was extracted
using the usual SFU procedures as described in
Takahashi and Nelson (Appendix 1 [this volume]).
At various steps in this extraction procedure, it is
possible to qualitatively assess the suitability of the
sample for measurement. The extract yield is a further
quantitative measure. When the weight of collagen
extract falls below a few percent (3–4%) of
the weight of the bone processed, that is evidence
for serious collagen degradation, and such samples
are not regarded as reliable. A further quantitative
test is provided by measurement of the carbon
and nitrogen concentrations in the extract, as these
should have the characteristic values of collagen
(Van Klinken 1999). In particular, a measured C/N
ratio (by weight) of between about 2.8 and 3.2 is
taken as a requirement for reliable measurement
(e.g., DeNiro 1985).
The extracts were submitted for analysis to the
isotopic facility of the University of British Columbia
Oceanographic Institute, where measures of the
carbon and nitrogen concentrations and the δ13C and
δ15N values were made. For the first measures (#1
to #28), only the C/N ratio was recorded; after that,
the absolute concentrations of C and N were also
Much experience with this stable isotope measurement
procedure has shown that the measurement
precision (one standard deviation) for the
same extract is typically about ±0.1‰ for δ13C and
±0.2‰ for δ15N. Also, the comparison mentioned in
the following section of δ13C data with results from
the same samples in the earlier study (Arneborg et
al. 1999) indicates precision and accuracy of this
order. A more direct indication of the precision of
the stable isotopic data can be seen in the study of
the Norse domestic animals (Nelson et al. 2012c
[this volume]). We reproduce in Table 3 a summary
of the isotopic results for the domestic and wild
animals of interest here (thus horses, dogs, and pigs
are not included) (cf. Nelson et al. 2012a, 2012c
[this volume]). (We also require these values for interpretive
purposes later.) These data were obtained
from measurements of very many animals, and so
the observed range includes both measurement uncertainty
and individual variation. As seen in Table
3, variabilities (at one standard deviation) for δ13C
of ≤0.5‰ and for δ15N of ≤1‰ describe all species.
To a good approximation then, we can conclude that
carbon isotopic differences ≥0.5‰ and nitrogen differences
of ≥1‰ reflect real dietary differences at
the level of the individual animal. As humans are
higher on the food chain and have a longer lifetime,
one would expect that a hypothetical human population
which consumed an entirely monotonous diet
would have an even smaller variation.
A complete list of the data obtained is given in
Table 4. As can be seen, many of the samples listed
in Table 2 proved potentially problematic for reliable
isotopic measurement. Preservative was detected
in many, some even from bone and in drillings that
to the naked eye seemed to be free of it. Others had
very low extract yields, indicative of extensive degradation
of the bone collagen. For those that did pass
these tests, the carbon and nitrogen elemental concentrations
of the extracted collagen, the ratio of the
two, and the yield of collagen extract indicate that the
material satisfies the requirements for reliable stable
98 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 3
Table 2. Description of all samples included in the study taken from each site. Site DK = Danish National Museum ID’s, the Norse name
(italics), and the modern Greenland name. KAL numbers identify the individuals in the collection at the Laboratory for Biological Anthropology,
University of Copenhagen. Project No. = sample number in the study.
KAL Project Individual’s Bone element Sampling
Site DK no. no. Sex age or material comments
Ø29a, Bratthalid, Qassiarsuk
CLA–1 #12 M >18 Clavicle Remnant sample from previous study.
CLA–2 #11 M >18 Clavicle Remnant sample from previous study.
1029 #186 Preservative on bone Sufficient presevative to sample separately.
" #187 F 20–25 Test bone material Bone covered by above.
1041 #25 F 35–40 Vertebrae Remnant sample from previous study.
1043 #26 F 35–40 Remnant sample from previous study.
1054 #28 F 25–30 Vertebrae Remnant sample from previous study.
1059 #27 F >35 Vertebrae Remnant sample from previous study.
1060 #16 F >18 Remnant sample from previous study.
1070 #164 Preservative on bone Sufficient presevative to sample separately.
" #165 - 15–20 Long bone Bone covered by above.
1180 #18 M >35 Long bone Remnant sample from previous study.
1789 #19 M 50–55 Remnant sample from previous study.
1794 #188 Preservative on bone Sufficient presevative to sample separately.
" #189 M 30–35 Femur Bone covered by above.
Ø66, Igaliku kujalleq
919 #23 F 25–30 Vertebrae Remnant sample from previous study.
920 #24 M 30–35 Cranium Remnant sample from previous study.
Ø47, Gardar, Igaliku
915 #20 M 30–35 Cranium Remnant sample from previous study.
916 #21 F 18/20–35 Cranium Remnant sample from previous study.
1118 #22 M >18 Remnant sample from previous study.
Ø111, Herjolfsnes, Ikigaat
903 #201 F 35–40 Femur
905 #202 F 20–25 Cranium
906 #13 F 20–25 Remnant sample from previous study.
907 #203 F 25–30 Femur
1105 #14 F 45–50 Remnant sample from previous study.
1106 #15 - 10–15 Remnant sample from previous study.
1108 #204 - 15–20 Foot bone?
1110 #205 - >18 Tibia ?
1111 #206 M 45–50 Femur
1120 #207 F 25–30 Femur
1121 #208 - 15–20 Femur
1146 #209 M 20–25 Mandibula
1676 #210 F >18 Femur
1677 #211 F 15–20 Femur
995 #212 F 18/20–35 Cranium
996 #213 - 18/20–35 Cranium
997 #214 - 18/20–35 Cranium
998 #215 F 18/20–35 Cranium
999 #10 - 15–20 Cranium Remnant sample from previous study.
" #216 - 15–20 Cranium Re–sampling of individual above.
1000 #7 M 25–30 Cranium Remnant sample from previous study.
" #217 M 25–30 Cranium Re–sampling of individual above.
1001 #8 M 18/20–35 Cranium/scapula Remnant sample from previous study.
" #218 M 18/20–35 Cranium Re–sampling of individual above.
1002 #9 F 35–40 Vertebrae Remnant sample from previous study.
" #219 F 35–40 Cranium Re–sampling of individual above.
1003 #220 M 18/20–35 Cranium
1004 #222 F 18/20–35 Cranium
1005 #223 F 18/20–35 Cranium
1006 #224 M >35 Cranium
1007 #225 F 18/20–35 Cranium
1008 #226 – 05–10 Cranium
1009 #221 F >35 Cranium
1010 #227 – >35 Cranium
1011 #228 F 20-25 Cranium
1012 #229 F 20-25 Cranium
2012 D.E. Nelson, J. Heinemeier, N. Lynnerup, Á.E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir, and J. Arneborg 99
Table 2, continued.
KAL Project Individual’s Bone element Sampling
Site DK no. no. Sex age or material comments
1013 #232 - 18/20–35 Pelvis
1014 #230 F 20–25 Cranium
1017 #235 F 20–25 Cranium
1018 #231 M 35–40 Cranium
1021 #234 - 35–40 Cranium
1022 #233 - 15–20 Cranium
1023 #236 - 18/20–35 Cranium
1141 #237 - >18 Cranium
V7, Anavik, Ujarassuit
990 #166 - Preservative on bone Sufficient presevative to sample separately.
" #167 M 30–35 Cranium (outer) Bone covered by above, first sample.
" #168 M 30–35 Cranium (inner) Bone covered by above, second sample.
991 #169 - Preservative on bone Sufficient presevative to sample separately.
" #170 F 35–40 Cranium (outer) Bone covered by above, first sample .
" #171 F 35–40 Cranium (inner) Bone covered by above, second sample.
992 #174 F 25–30 Cranium
993 #172 F 25–30 Cranium
994 #173 F 35–40 Cranium
1578 #199 M 35–40 Cranium
1639 #200 F >18 Femur
1644 #175 M >18 Femur
V51, Sandnes, Kilaarsarfik
922 #178 M 35–40 Cranium
923 #179 F 40–45 Cranium
924 #180 F 20–25 Cranium
925 #245 – 05–10 Femur
926 #181 F 25–30 Cranium Element comparison.
" #182 F 25–30 Femur See above.
927 #183 F 35–40 Cranium
928 #2 F 20–25 Remnant sample from previous study.
929 #1 M 35–40 Humerus Remnant sample from previous study.
930 #184 F 30–35 Cranium
931 #185 M 30–35 Cranium
932 #190 F 20–25 Cranium
933 #191 M 40–45 Cranium
934 #193 M 35–40 Cranium
935 #194 M 20–25 Cranium
936 #195 F 25–30 Cranium
937 #196 F 25–30 Cranium
938 #197 F 35–40 Cranium
944 #238 F 40–45 Cranium
945 #239 M 40–45 Cranium
947 #240 F 30–35 Cranium
957 #258 F 20–25 Humerus Element comparison.
" #259 F 20–25 Cranium See above.
958 #254 F 30–35 Femur Element comparison.
" #255 F 30–35 Cranium See above.
959 #5 F 40–45 Remnant sample from previous study.
960 #3 F 40–45 Remnant sample from previous study.
961 #4 F 20–25 Remnant sample from previous study.
963 #241 - 05–10 Cranium Reproducibility and element comparison.
" #256 - 05–10 Femur See above.
" #257 - 05–10 Cranium See above.
964 #6 F 25–30 Remnant sample from previous study.
966 #244 - 10–15 Femur
968 #243 M 35–40 Cranium Element comparison.
" #251 M 35–40 Femur See above.
969 #242 F 40–45 Cranium Element comparison.
" #253 F 40–45 Femur See above.
1123 #249 F 20–25 Femur
1126 #248 - 05–10 Femur
1128 #252 F 45–50 Femur
1131 #250 - 10–15 Femur
1612 #247 M 15–20 Femur
1679 #246 - 05–10 Femur
100 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 3
Further, we have no certainty that these are the only
two preservatives that have been applied to these
bones. Because of these problems, we report here
two classes of data: 1) robust data obtained from
bone samples for which we are reasonably certain
that no consolidants had been applied and which
meet the criteria described above, and 2) provisional
data obtained from samples for which we believe we
have eliminated the possibility of preservative contamination.
We note in this context that all the δ13C
data from the Arneborg et al. 1999 study (shown in
Table 4), where only standard precautions against
possible preservatives were taken, are in good
agreement with those of the present study, including
some provisional and problematic samples. Thus,
the mean difference between δ13C values in the 1999
study compared to the present provisional or suspect
samples is -0.14‰ with a standard deviation of
0.18‰ (n = 9), while the corresponding difference
from the samples deemed good in the present study
are 0.06‰ (mean) and 0.22‰ (standard deviation),
respectively (n = 11). This agreement is both a confi
rmation of the reliability of provisional results and
the precision and accuracy of the δ13C measurements
Other samples reported in Table 2 have been
eliminated from further consideration here. For convenience,
the suite of data which we will use for further
analysis is given in Table 5. Analysis of this extensive
data set is complicated. Here, we must both
test the applicability and limitations of the method
and at the same time attempt to derive information of
value to archaeological interpretation. We begin this
analysis by examining the human data using only the
most basic, firmly established considerations, derive
the empirical information possible at that level, and
then proceed to more complex quantitative analyses.
This procedure will inevitably lead to repetition, as
the same data can be examined at different levels.
It is immediately evident
from a simple perusal of the
data in Table 5 that the ranges
of isotopic values far exceed
those determined for any
one of the domestic or wild
animal species (Nelson et al.
2012a, 2012c [this volume]).
Comparison with the data
for the West Coast Greenlandic
Thule Culture (Gulløv
2012 [this volume], Nelson
et al. 2012b [this volume])
gives the same conclusion:
isotopic measurement. For some bones, the yields
were actually higher than expected. This condition
was also noted for some of the animal samples, and
it is an indication that the collagen in the bone was
sometimes well preserved although the bone mineral
was under diagenetic attack. Personal observations
by E. Nelson made during a subsequent excavation
of a Norse midden in the Eastern Settlement support
this conclusion, in that objects such as bits of leather
were sometimes extremely well preserved, while
bone was sometimes flexible and leathery.
As described above, at least two types of preservative
were identified. One was old-fashioned glue,
the so-called hide glue used by wood-workers. From
the isotopic analyst’s viewpoint, the excavators
could not have chosen a worse material. This glue
is made of collagen extracted from the hides, bones,
and hooves of animals (usually cattle and horses),
and so it is the identical chemical substance we wish
to separate from the human bones for isotopic measurement.
In particular, the tests discussed above for
determining collagen extract purity will be useless.
As one could predict, this preservative was found
to have the stable isotopic signatures of terrestrial
herbivores, which will certainly confuse analysis.
One preservative sample had the characteristics
expected for an acrylic, and so may have been the
Bedacryl that was apparently used in the laboratory
many years after the excavation. Some bones from
the earlier excavations may then have been treated
with more than one type of preservative.
A separate study of the properties of hide glue
(Takahashi et al. 2002) showed that it is possible
in sample preparation for stable isotope analysis to
separate adequately the autochthonous bone collagen
from hide glue smeared onto the bone. As well,
one would not expect that the carbon in the acrylic
(there is no nitrogen) would survive the collagen
extraction process. However, it is not clear what the
impact of both would have on the isotopic results.
Table 3. The animal data: bone collagen means with standard deviations (standard error in brackets).
The domestic and wild animal data are taken from Nelson et al. (2012c [this volume]) and
Nelson et al. (2012a [this volume]), respectively. The Western Settlement cattle show much greater
variation (Nelson et al. (2012c [this volume]), but for the purpose, effective mean domestic values
are assumed to be the same as for the Eastern Settlement (see text).
δ13C (‰) δ15N (‰) n
Domestic animals -20.01 ± 0.57 (0.06) 4.0 ± 1.0 (0.1) 17–22 cattle, 23–32 sheep/goats
Harp seal -14.7 ± 0.6 (0.3) 14.1 ± 0.5 (0.3) 3–4
Hooded seal -13.6 ± 0.5 (0.2) 15.8 ± 1.0 (0.3) 11–12
Domestic animals -20.01 4.0 *
Caribou -18.2 ± 0.4 (0.1) 2.0 ± 0.7 (0.2) 16–20
Harp seal -14.1 ± 0.4 (0.2) 14.7 ± 0.8 (0.3) 6–9
Harbor seal -12.6 ± 0.3 (0.1) 17.0 ± 0.9 (0.3) 8–9
* Eastern Settlement values assumed.
2012 D.E. Nelson, J. Heinemeier, N. Lynnerup, Á.E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir, and J. Arneborg 101
Table 4. The entire data set obtained. Column 9 refers to the δ13 C values measured in this study. Samples labeled #1 to #28 are remnant
bone material from an earlier study (Arneborg et al. 1999), and in column 10 we report the values from the 1999 study for comparison.
Site KAL Project Preservative Yield δ13C δ13C δ15N
DK no. no. visible? (%) %C %N C/N (‰) (‰) (‰) Comments
Ø29a n = 15/12 (our study samples/KAL individuals)
CLA-1 #12 No 1.7 - - 2.8 -17.6 -17.5 12.8 Good. Low yield due to lab problem.
CLA-2 #11 No 17.8 - - 2.9 -18.0 -18.1 12.2 Good
1029 #186 Pres. itself - 44.0 14.7 3.0 -21.5 7.0 Identified as hide glue. See #164 below.
" #187 Yes Not measured. Test material.
1041 #25 Yes 2.7 - - 2.8 -18.6 -19.0 11.4 Provisional. Possible remnant preservative.
1043 #26 No 0.8 - - -18.9 Very low yield. Poor extract.
1054 #28 Yes 0.9 - - -18.0 Very low yield. Poor extract.
1059 #27 Yes 0.8 - - -16.8 Very low yield. Poor extract.
1060 #16 Yes 4.9 - - 2.9 -18.9 -19.1 11.4 Provisional. Possible remnant preservative.
1070 #164 Pres. itself 47.8 41.5 13.2 3.1 -21.2 7.3 Identified as hide glue. See #186 above.
" #165 Yes 4.4 45.2 14.0 3.2 -18.6 13.2 Provisional. Possible remnant preservative.
1180 #18 Possibly 1.2 - - -18.5 Very low yield. Poor extract.
1789 #19 Yes 0.4 - - -18.0 Very low yield. Poor extract.
1794 #188 Pres. itself 59.2 nd -23.8 - An acrylic, possibly Bedacryl
" #189 Yes Not measured. Preservative seen microscopically in drillings.
Ø66 n = 2/2
919 #23 Yes 1.4 - - -15.8 Very low yield. Poor extract.
920 #24 Yes 4.2 - - -17.1 -17.3 14.7 Provisional. Possible remnant preservative.
Ø47 n = 3/3
915 #20 No 6.9 - - 2.7 -16.5 -16.8 15.3 Good
916 #21 Yes 0.7 - - -17.6 Very low yield. Poor extract.
1118 #22 Yes 3.2 - - 2.8 -18.7 -18.8 14.0 Good
Ø111 n = 14/14
903 #201 Yes Not measured. Preservative seen microscopically in drillings.
905 #202 Yes Not measured. Preservative seen microscopically in drillings.
906 #13 Yes 7.8 - - 3.0 -14.4 -14.4 17.5 Provisional. Possible remnant preservative.
907 #203 Yes Not measured. Preservative seen microscopically in drillings.
1105 #14 No 3.5 - - 2.9 -16.2 -16.2 15.6 Good
1106 #15 No 10.4 - - 2.9 -16.6 -16.3 15.6 Good
1108 #204 Possibly Not measured. Preservative seen microscopically in drillings.
1110 #205 No 3.1 44.8 14.3 3.1 -16.2 16.9 Good
1111 #206 No 20.2 44.2 15.4 2.9 -14.7 16.7 Good
1120 #207 No 15.9 43.8 15.9 2.8 -15.4 16.4 Good
1121 #208 No 16.1 43.8 15.5 2.8 -15.5 16.4 Good
1146 #209 No 8.5 43.8 15.0 2.9 -15.4 16.8 Good
1676 #210 No 19.7 44.3 15.0 3.0 -15.4 16.8 Good
1677 #211 Yes Not measured. Preservative seen microscopically in drillings.
Ø149 n = 30/26
995 #212 No 10.0 44.2 15.4 2.9 -16.0 16.7 Good
996 #213 No 12.2 44.0 15.3 2.9 -15.3 16.6 Good
997 #214 No 18.2 43.7 15.6 2.8 -15.1 17.5 Good
998 #215 No 20.1 43.3 15.6 2.8 -15.9 16.4 Good
999 #10 No 11.0 2.8 -16.2 -16.0 16.1 Suspect original sample. Possibility to re-sample.
" #216 No 15.5 43.4 14.8 2.9 -14.5 17.5 Good. Use this value.
1000 #7 No 8.2 2.8 -15.6 -15.9 14.8 Suspect original sample. Possibility to re-sample.
" #217 No 13.0 43.0 15.0 2.9 -15.9 15.7 Good. Use this value.
1001 #8 Possibly 6.7 2.8 -14.7 -14.8 17.4 Suspect original sample. Possibility to re-sample.
" #218 No 15.6 43.7 13.9 3.1 -14.8 17.5 Good. Use this value.
1002 #9 No 2.0 2.9 -16.1 -16.3 15.3 Suspect original sample. Possibility to re-sample.
" #219 No 19.9 43.6 14.8 2.9 -17.0 15.4 Good. Use this value.
1003 #220 No 13.0 44.0 13.9 3.2 -16.2 15.9 Good
1004 #222 No 16.5 43.2 15.2 2.8 -15.0 16.9 Good
1005 #223 Yes Not measured. Preservative seen microscopically in drillings.
1006 #224 No 18.1 43.2 15.8 2.7 -15.7 15.8 Good
1007 #225 Possibly Not measured. Preservative seen microscopically in drillings.
1008 #226 No 22.5 43.4 15.4 2.8 -16.2 16.0 Good
1009 #221 No 20.8 43.2 15.6 2.8 -16.0 16.3 Good
1010 #227 No 16.1 43.6 15.3 2.9 -15.3 17.5 Good
1011 #228 No 19.8 43.5 15.3 2.8 -16.2 15.6 Good
1012 #229 No 17.4 43.4 15.7 2.8 -16.1 15.9 Good
1013 #232 No 12.5 43.2 15.2 2.8 -15.2 16.2 Good
102 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 3
Table 4, continued.
Site KAL Project Preservative Yield δ13C δ13C δ15N
DK no. no. visible? (%) %C %N C/N (‰) (‰) (‰) Comments
1014 #230 No 21.5 57.1 19.7 2.9 -17.3 13.9 Good
1017 #235 No 11.3 44.0 14.7 3.0 -16.8 16.2 Good
1018 #231 No 14.6 43.2 14.8 2.9 -15.5 15.5 Good
1021 #234 No 15.2 43.5 15.4 2.8 -14.2 18.6 Good
1022 #233 No 8.0 43.6 14.8 2.9 -15.9 16.6 Good
1023 #236 No 14.3 43.5 14.7 3.0 -15.9 16.6 Good
1141 #237 No 15.2 43.4 14.9 2.9 -15.2 17.2 Good
V7 n = 12/8
990 #166 Pres. itself - 42.6 14.2 3.0 -18.5 7.0 Identified as hide glue. See #169 below.
" #167 Yes 15.6 44.1 15.7 2.8 -15.6 15.7 Some preservative likely included.
" #168 Yes 17.2 44.1 15.2 2.9 -14.8 17.0 Provisional. Possible remnant preservative.
991 #169 Pres. itself - 43.5 14.8 2.9 -18.7 6.9 Identified as hide glue. See #166 above.
" #170 Yes 13.0 44.5 14.8 3.0 -17.2 15.7 Provisional. Possible remnant preservative.
" #171 Yes 12.0 44.7 15.8 2.8 -17.1 15.5 As #170 above. Use this value.
992 #174 No 11.6 43.7 14.9 2.9 -16.6 15.3 Good
993 #172 Yes 10.0 44.7 15.1 3.0 -16.2 17.1 Provisional. Possible remnant preservative.
994 #173 Yes 13.4 43.7 13.6 3.2 -16.6 16.4 Provisional. Possible remnant preservative.
1578 #199 Yes Not measured. Preservative seen microscopically in drillings.
1639 #200 Yes Not measured. Preservative seen microscopically in drillings.
1644 #175 No 10.3 45.4 14.3 3.2 -17.8 14.3 Good
V51 n = 43/36
922 #178 No 16.7 43.9 14.8 3.0 -15.3 15.7 Good
923 #179 No 17.5 43.8 15.8 2.8 -16.6 14.5 Good
924 #180 No 19.2 43.8 14.9 2.9 -15.9 16.7 Good
925 #245 No 15.9 43.9 15.9 2.8 -17.3 14.3 Good
926 #181 No 12.9 43.6 15.6 2.8 -17.2 12.5 Good
" #182 No 11.9 43.0 15.6 2.8 -16.4 13.9 Good
927 #183 No 14.3 43.9 15.5 2.8 -15.3 16.4 Good
928 #2 No 6.5 2.7 -15.1 -15.2 15.2 Good
929 #1 No 2.8 2.9 -15.1 -14.8 15.3 Good
930 #184 No 13.4 43.9 15.5 2.8 -15.5 16.5 Good
931 #185 No 17.7 43.9 15.5 2.8 -15.1 16.0 Good
932 #190 Possibly Not measured. Preservative possibly seen microscopically in drillings.
933 #191 No 15.3 43.8 15.4 2.8 -17.0 12.7 Good
934 #193 No 15.6 43.7 15.4 2.8 -17.6 12.1 Good
935 #194 No 17.7 43.3 15.3 2.8 -16.9 14.8 Good
936 #195 No 16.6 43.9 16.0 2.7 -16.0 15.9 Good
937 #196 No 15.4 44.0 15.9 2.8 -16.7 13.7 Good
938 #197 No 14.8 44.1 15.8 2.8 -16.7 15.4 Good
944 #238 Possibly Not measured. Preservative seen microscopically in drillings.
945 #239 Possibly Not measured. Preservative seen microscopically in drillings.
947 #240 No 17.8 44.0 15.8 2.8 -16.4 15.3 Good
957 #258 No 19.3 43.8 15.4 2.8 -15.5 16.4 Good
" #259 No 21.5 43.7 15.8 2.8 -16.5 14.2 Good
958 #254 No 19.8 43.8 15.5 2.8 -16.1 15.5 Good
" #255 No 19.4 43.8 15.5 2.8 -17.0 15.6 Good
959 #5 No 5.7 2.7 -16.5 -16.2 14.9 Good
960 #3 No 6.0 2.8 -16.3 -16.2 14.9 Good
961 #4 No 7.0 2.9 -14.1 -14.1 15.7 Good
963 #241 No 16.4 43.6 15.7 2.8 -16.3 15.2 Good
" #256 No 20.7 43.7 16.1 2.7 -16.6 14.6 Good
" #257 No 21.6 44.0 16.0 2.8 -16.4 15.7 Good
964 #6 No 3.1 2.8 -15.8 -15.4 15.4 Good
966 #244 No 18.0 43.5 15.7 2.8 -15.7 16.0 Good
968 #243 No 16.4 43.9 15.8 2.8 -16.9 14.7 Good
" #251 No 6.3 44.7 15.4 2.9 -17.3 15.1 Good
969 #242 No 21.5 43.6 15.7 2.8 -16.9 14.5 Good
" #253 No 19.9 43.6 15.6 2.8 -16.6 14.5 Good
1123 #249 No 17.1 43.7 15.9 2.7 -15.8 16.9 Good
1126 #248 No 14.1 43.3 15.1 2.9 -16.5 15.4 Good
1128 #252 No 19.4 43.6 15.3 2.9 -15.9 16.3 Good
1131 #250 No 21.5 43.5 15.4 2.8 -16.0 14.2 Good
1612 #247 No 16.8 43.3 15.0 2.9 -14.9 17.1 Good
1679 #246 No 11.7 43.4 15.5 2.8 -16.1 14.5 Good
2012 D.E. Nelson, J. Heinemeier, N. Lynnerup, Á.E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir, and J. Arneborg 103
The well-established fact that both carbon and
nitrogen isotopic values are much higher for marine
protein than for terrestrial protein is certainly confi
rmed in Greenland, and so any empirical deductions
we can make on that basis will be solid. For this
qualitative examination, Figure 3 plots all the Norse
human data given in Table 4 coded for settlement
(color) and site (shape of symbol). Mean values are
used where there are multiple determinations for the
same individual. In this plot, as in all others presented
in this series, consumers of marine protein will
have isotopic values to the upper right, and those
of terrestrial protein to the lower left. Those people
consuming a mixture should be found on the straight
Table 5. A summary of the human data that are included in the
analysis. All samples are reported in table 2. * = provisional; **
= the Bishop.
KAL Project Individual’s Bone δ13C δ15N
Site no. no. Sex age element (‰) (‰)
Ø29a, Brattahlid, Qassiarsuk
CLA-1 #12 M >18 Clavicle -17.6 12.8
CLA-2 #11 M >18 Clavicle -18.0 12.2
1041* #25 F 35–40 Vertebrae -18.6 11.4
1060* #16 F >18 -18.9 11.4
1070* #165 - 15–20 Long bone -18.6 13.2
Ø66, Igaliku kujalleq
920* #24 M 30–35 Cranium -17.1 14.7
Ø47, Gardar, Igaliku
915 #20 M 30–35 Cranium -16.5 15.3
1118** #22 M >18 -18.7 14.0
Ø111, Herjolfsnes, Ikigaat
906* #13 F 20–25 -14.4 17.5
1105 #14 F 45–50 -16.2 15.6
1106 #15 - 10–15 -16.6 15.6
1110 #205 - >18 Tibia ? -16.2 16.9
1111 #206 M 45–50 Femur -14.7 16.7
1120 #207 F 25–30 Femur -15.4 16.4
1121 #208 - 15–20 Femur -15.5 16.4
1146 #209 M 20–25 Mandibula -15.4 16.8
1676 #210 F >18 Femur -15.4 16.8
995 #212 F 18/20–35 Cranium -16.0 16.7
996 #213 - 18/20–35 Cranium -15.3 16.6
997 #214 - 18/20–35 Cranium -15.1 17.5
998 #215 F 18/20–35 Cranium -15.9 16.4
999 #216 - 15–20 Cranium -14.5 17.5
1000 #217 M 25–30 Cranium -15.9 15.7
1001 #218 M 18/20–35 Cranium -14.8 17.5
1002 #219 F 35–40 Cranium -17.0 15.4
1003 #220 M 18/20–35 Cranium -16.2 15.9
1004 #222 F 18/20–35 Cranium -15.0 16.9
1006 #224 M >35 Cranium -15.7 15.8
1008 #226 - 5–10 Cranium -16.2 16.0
1009 #221 F >35 Cranium -16.0 16.3
1010 #227 - >35 Cranium -15.3 17.5
1011 #228 F 20–25 Cranium -16.2 15.6
1012 #229 F 20–25 Cranium -16.1 15.9
1013 #232 - 18/20–35 Pelvis -15.2 16.2
1014 #230 F 20–25 Cranium -17.3 13.9
1017 #235 F 20–25 Cranium -16.8 16.2
1018 #231 M 35–40 Cranium -15.5 15.5
1021 #234 - 35–40 Cranium -14.2 18.6
1022 #233 - 15–20 Cranium -15.9 16.6
1023 #236 - 18/20–35 Cranium -15.9 16.6
1141 #237 - >18 Cranium -15.2 17.2
V7, Anavik, Ujarassuit
990* #168 M 30–35 Cranium -14.8 17.0
991* #171 F 35–40 Cranium -17.1 15.5
992 #174 F 25–30 Cranium -16.6 15.3
993* #172 F 25–30 Cranium -16.2 17.1
994* #173 F 35–40 Cranium -16.6 16.4
1644 #175 M >18 Femur -17.8 14.3
Table 5, continued.
KAL Project Individual’s Bone δ13C δ15N
Site no. no. Sex age element (‰) (‰)
V51, Sandnes, Kilaarsarfik
922 #178 M 35–40 Cranium -15.3 15.7
923 #179 F 40–45 Cranium -16.6 14.5
924 #180 F 20–25 Cranium -15.9 16.7
925 #245 - 05–10 Femur -17.3 14.3
926 #181 F 25–30 Cranium -17.2 12.5
" #182 F 25–30 Femur -16.4 13.9
926a Average F 25–30 -16.8 13.2
927 #183 F 35–40 Cranium -15.3 16.4
928 #2 F 20–25 -15.1 15.2
929 #1 M 35–40 Humerus -15.1 15.3
930 #184 F 30–35 Cranium -15.5 16.5
931 #185 M 30–35 Cranium -15.1 16.0
933 #191 M 40–45 Cranium -17.0 12.7
934 #193 M 35–40 Cranium -17.6 12.1
935 #194 M 20–25 Cranium -16.9 14.8
936 #195 F 25–30 Cranium -16.0 15.9
937 #196 F 25–30 Cranium -16.7 13.7
938 #197 F 35–40 Cranium -16.7 15.4
947 #240 F 30–35 Cranium -16.4 15.3
957 #258 F 20–25 Humerus -15.5 16.4
" #259 F 20–25 Cranium -16.5 14.2
957a Average F 20–25 -16.0 15.3
958 #254 F 20–25 Femur -16.1 15.5
" #255 F 20–25 Cranium -17.0 15.6
958a Average F 20–25 -16.5 15.5
959 #5 F 40–45 -16.5 14.9
960 #3 F 40–45 -16.3 14.9
961 #4 F 20–25 -14.1 15.7
963 #241 - 05–10 Cranium -16.3 15.2
" #256 - 05–10 Femur -16.6 14.6
" #257 - 05–10 Cranium -16.4 15.7
963a Average - -16.4 15.1
964 #6 F 25–30 -15.8 15.4
966 #244 - 10–15 Femur -15.7 16.0
968 #243 M 35–40 Cranium -16.9 14.7
" #251 M 35–40 Femur -17.3 15.1
968a Average M 35–40 -17.1 14.9
969 #242 F 40–45 Cranium -16.9 14.5
" #253 F 40–45 Femur -16.6 14.5
969a Average F 40–45 -16.8 14.5
1123 #249 F 20–25 Femur -15.8 16.9
1126 #248 - 05–10 Femur -16.5 15.4
1128 #252 F 45–50 Femur -15.9 16.3
1131 #250 - 10–15 Femur -16.0 14.2
1612 #247 M 15–20 Femur -14.9 17.1
1679 #246 - 05–10 Femur -16.1 14.5
the Norse had an isotopically varied diet. As these
isotopic bone collagen measures reflect long-term
protein consumption and since animal protein and
fat were the principal components of Norse diet, this
wide range must reflect fundamental dietary differences
within Norse society.
104 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 3
line between the two. While the nature of this mixing
line is sometimes complex in circumstances of low
dietary protein, that is not a consideration here. The
linear pattern evident in Figure 3 provides qualitative
confirmation that the data are meaningful at the
level of the individual and that the general assumptions
underlying the method can be applied.
Since our measures could not always be taken
on the same bone element, we must establish the
differences to be expected for bones from the same
individual before we can compare values between individuals.
Table 6 gives the measured values for the
cranium and a long bone for each of 6 people from
the Sandnes site: one young child and five adults.
For the child, two measures of the cranium differ in
δ13C by 0.1‰ and the femur differs by 0.3‰. The
cranium data are within estimated measurement uncertainty,
and the femur data a very little different,
as one might expect for a young child whose bones
are growing at different times. The child’s nitrogen
data provide the same information. Some of the five
adults have slightly greater differences between bone
elements, with δ13C values differing by ≤1‰ and
δ15N values by ≤2.2‰. We noted above that δ13C differences
of ≥0.5‰ and δ15N differences of ≥1‰ were
likely due to real dietary differences. Some of these
adults may thus have experienced dietary changes
within their lifetimes; we note that those with the
largest differences are young women. In any case,
these changes are small, especially in comparison to
the range of values shown in Figure 3.
That the data provide useful information at the
individual level is further confirmed by a direct test.
Our measurements include those for a man who must
have migrated to Greenland as an adult (Arneborg
1991, Arneborg et al. 1999). In Table 5, the individual
KAL-1118 (sample # 22) was a Bishop excavated
at Ø47 (Gardar Cathedral). This man would
not have been a native Greenlander, but a senior
Church official sent to Greenland as an adult. As his
bone collagen will primarily
reflect his diet as
a younger man in Norway
due to slow carbon
turnover (e.g., Hedges
et al. 2007), his isotopic
values should be different
from those of native
Norse Greenlanders (cf.
Arneborg et al. 1999,
Lynnerup 1998). Unlike
the situation in Greenland,
cereal grains were
a basic part of medieval
diet in the Scandinavian
homelands. The Bishop
should then be isotopically
than his Greenlandic
charges. A comparison
of the data seen in Table
4 and in Figure 3 shows
the Bishop standing
well apart at the terrestrial
end of the scale.
While it might be interesting
to compare his
isotopic data with those
of others in contemporary
Scandinavia, that is
not relevant here. This
Bishop was not a native
Greenlander and so cannot
on the Greenlandic diet.
This same argument
can be extended to
Figure 3. Human isotopic data for Eastern (red) and Western (black) Settlements. In the plot,
all the Norse human data given in Table 4 are coded for settlement (color) and site (shape of
symbol). Mean values are used where there are multiple determinations for the same individual.
In this plot, consumers of marine protein will have isotopic values to the upper right,
and those of terrestrial protein to the lower left. Those people consuming a mixture should be
found on the straight line between the two. The linear pattern evident in the figure provides
qualitative confirmation that the data are meaningful at the level of the individual and that the
general assumptions underlying the method can be applied.
2012 D.E. Nelson, J. Heinemeier, N. Lynnerup, Á.E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir, and J. Arneborg 105
chaeological interpretation, along with AMS dates,
makes it possible that some Greenland-born humans
were buried in the churchyard (Arneborg et al. 2012b
[this volume]). The two men for whom the measurements
are robust (CLA–1, sample #12, and CLA–2,
sample #11) are unusual in another sense, in that
they probably met violent deaths together with several
others and were interred in a mass grave (Krogh
1982, Lynnerup 1998). Compared to the other Norse
cemeteries, the isotopic data for the five individuals
at Ø29a are unusual, and we can again conclude that
the isotopic data do provide useful information at
the individual level. As well, for the purpose of the
present methodological food-consumer isotopic relationship
study, we eliminate the Ø29a individuals
from further consideration here. Since we cannot be
certain that these individuals are native Greenlandic
Norse, they cannot provide definitive information
on the Greenlandic diet, although the question of
whether they were of external origin or were locally
born who tried to make the “European” life-style
work in the early settlement phase is of great archaeological
interest and will be discussed in Arneborg et
al. (2012b [this volume]).
If values for individuals are meaningful, comparisons
of groups will be reliable. Table 7 gives
the isotopic data means for the two settlements as a
whole (lower part) and for the various sites (upper
part). The settlement means (lower part of Table 7)
do not include data for the Bishop or the provisional
data, but does include “good” data from the small
data sets Ø29a and Ø47. The numbers of individuals
at each settlement for which there are robust
determinations are almost identical (36 for the Eastern
Settlement and 35 for the Western Settlement).
Both the δ13C and the δ15N means are lower for the
Western Settlement than for the Eastern Settlement,
indicating greater relative consumption of marine
protein in the Eastern Settlement. However, the
difference is small compared to the intra-group variability,
and also, the Eastern-Western Settlement
comparison may not be meaningful without considering
the chronological distribution of individuals in
relation to the temporal development of dietary habits
observed in Arneborg et al. (1999) and Arneborg
et al. (2012b [this volume]).
Table 7 (upper part) gives the means for the
sites at which there are at least 5 individuals. Here,
we include the means for V7 Anavik, which are
calculated primarily on provisional data (2 reliable
and 4 provisional). In the Eastern Settlement, the
means for Ø111 Herjolfsnes and Ø149 are identical.
In the Western Settlement, we have reliable data
for >5 individuals only from V51 Sandnes, but the
carbon data from V7 Anavik falls in the same range,
although the nitrogen values are slightly, but not
significantly, higher considering the standard error
certain other individuals, but here we are less certain
of the archaeological information against which we
test the isotopes. It is argued that the little church
excavated at the present settlement Qassiarsuk
(Ø29a) is the one described in the sagas as having
been established at Brattahlid by the founding settler
Tjodhilde, wife of Erik the Red (Meldgaard 1982).
The samples measured here as Ø29a individuals
(Table 4, Fig. 1) were from the cemetery associated
with this church. Whether or not this identification
is accurate is not an issue here, as the nature of the
little church and cemetery indicates that it was a
very early Christian church which was eventually
superseded by larger ones as the new colony and the
new religion became established (Arneborg 2010,
Arneborg et al. 2012a [this volume], Krogh 1982).
The consequence of importance to this study is that
some of the people buried there could be the original
immigrants who would have isotopic values in large
part characteristic of the lands they left. They could
thus be expected to have values different from those
of individuals found at the later cemeteries in Norse
Greenland. Unfortunately, the poor preservation of
the bones from Ø29a and the presence of the consolidant
on them meant that only a few measures were
made, but even so, the data are unusually terrestrial,
perhaps in keeping with the presumption that they
are immigrants. Even though there is no duplication
of samples between the two studies, this conclusion
could support the results of an earlier isotopic study
of the δ18O values of the teeth of these individuals,
which also suggested that they were immigrants to
Greenland (Fricke et al. 1995). However, the ar-
Table 6. Bone pair test: Measured δ13 C and δ15 N values for
the cranium and a long bone for each of 6 individuals from the
Sandnes site V51 in the Western Settlement.
KAL Project Individual’s Bone δ13C δ15N
No. No. Sex age element (‰) (‰)
926 #181 F 25–30 Cranium -17.2 12.5
#182 Femur -16.4 13.9
Difference -0.8 -1.4
957 #259 F 20–25 Cranium -16.5 14.2
#258 Humerus -15.5 16.4
Difference -1.0 -2.2
958 #255 F 30–35 Cranium -17.0 15.6
#254 Femur -16.1 15.5
Difference -0.9 0.1
963 #241 - 05–10 Cranium -16.3 15.2
#257 Cranium -16.4 15.7
#256 Femur -16.6 14.6
Difference 0.3 0.9
968 #243 M 35–40 Cranium -16.9 14.7
#251 Femur -17.3 15.1
Difference 0.4 -0.4
969 #242 F 40–45 Cranium -16.9 14.5
#253 Femur -16.6 14.5
Difference -0.3 0.0
106 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 3
the values for individuals at a given site, and
so Norse diet was not homogeneous;
4) it is clear that marine protein played a major
role in the diets at both settlements; and
5) to the extent that our observations allow,
we could not detect differences correlated
to sex or age. Since the data set (Table 5)
contains a wide range of values and some
individuals seem to stand out as unusual at
a site, there must be other factors involved.
These could include personal movement, or
status, or changing diet over time.
More detailed deductions can be made by placing
these data on a quantitative consumption scale.
Quantitative determinations of the relative amounts
of marine and terrestrial food in the diets of individuals
require that the human endpoint values be
of the means (0.2 and 0.5‰, respectively). For both
settlements, the observed range for individuals at
each cemetery is much larger than the differences in
Table 8 gives the mean values for the females and
males at the cemeteries Ø149 and Ø111 Herjolfsnes
in the Eastern Settlement as well as for V51 Sandnes
and V7 Anavik in the Western Settlement. Of these,
there are sufficient reliable data from Ø149 and V51
Sandnes to provide group comparisons. At Ø149,
the mean for the five males is very slightly more
marine than that for the 8 females, while the opposite
seems true at V51 Sandnes. These differences are
very small in comparison to the range of individual
values, and given the measurement uncertainties and
the numbers of individuals, they do not have any
interpretive significance. The means for the smaller
numbers of people at Ø111 Herjolfsnes (of which
one measure is provisional) and V7 Anavik (4 of
the 6 measures are provisional) provide the same
information. In short, there is no isotopic evidence
for sex-linked dietary differences.
The same general observation can be made in
comparing the data (Table 5) for the different age
groups. Again, considering the limited number of
sex-categorized individuals and the crude age estimates,
there is no obvious systematic correlation of
isotopic value and the age of the individual.
We can then use these basic qualitative observations
to conclude that:
1) the isotopic data are useful at the individual
level, and can identify unusual people;
2) in comparison to all other cemeteries, the
humans buried at Ø29a Brattahlid are isotopically
3) with the exception of Ø29a Brattahlid,
there are considerable differences between
Table 7. Statistics for major sampling sites and for the two settlement totals: settlement area (lower part of table) and site averages (upper
part of table). The analysis is based on the data in Table 4, and the number of individuals included from each settlement is indicated (n).
Except for Anavik, all provisional data are excluded.
Eastern Settlement Western Settlement
δ13C (‰) δ15N (‰) δ13C (‰) δ15N (‰)
Ø149, Narsarsuaq (n = 24) V51 Sandnes, Kilaarsarfik (n = 33)
Mean -15.7 16.4 Mean -16.1 15.2
St. deviation 0.7 1.0 St. deviation 0.8 1.1
St. error 0.2 0.2 St. error 0.1 0.2
Ø111 Herjolfsnes, Ikigaat (n = 8) V7 Anavik, Ujarassuit (n = 6, of which 4 are provisional measures)
Mean -15.7 16.4 Mean -16.5 15.9
St. deviation 0.6 0.5 St. deviation 1.0 1.1
St. error 0.2 0.2 St. error 0.4 0.5
Eastern Settlement averages (n = 36)* Western Settlement averages (n = 35)**
Mean -15.87 16.11 Mean -16.17 15.14
St. deviation 0.85 1.26 St. deviation 0.81 1.11
St. error 0.14 0.21 St. error 0.14 0.19
*All provisional values and the Bishop are excluded. Included **All provisional values are excluded.
are 2 “good” samples from Ø29a and 2 from Ø47
Table 8. The mean δ13C and δ15N values for the females and
males at the cemeteries Ø149 and Ø111 Herjolfsnes in the Eastern
Settlement as well as for V51 Sandnes and V7 Anavik in the
Number of Averages
Site Sex individuals δ13C (‰) δ15N (‰)
F 8 -16.2 ± 0.7 15.9 ± 0.9
M 5 -15.6 ± 0.5 16.1 ± 0.8
Ø111, Herjolfsnes, Ikigaat
F 4 -15.3 ± 0.7 16.6 ± 0.8
M 2 -15.0 ± 0.5 16.8 ± 0.1
V51, Sandnes, Kilaarsarfik
F 19 -16.0 ± 0.7 15.4 ± 1.0
M 8 -16.1 ± 1.1 14.8 ± 1.7
V7, Anavik, Ujarassuit
F 4 -16.6 ± 0.4 16.1 ± 0.8
M 2 -16.3 ± 2.1 15.6 ± 1.9
2012 D.E. Nelson, J. Heinemeier, N. Lynnerup, Á.E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir, and J. Arneborg 107
carefully established for each isotope. These endpoints
are the mean isotopic values for hypothetical
populations of humans consuming nothing but food
from one or the other of the food reservoirs under
consideration, in this case protein from the Greenlandic
terrestrial and marine reservoirs. Endpoint
values are usually established indirectly by measurement
of the bone collagen of the animals consumed,
from which the human values may be predicted
using the known isotopic shifts which link the bone
collagen of the animals eaten to that of the humans
who consumed them. Here, we have the animal data
reported in one of the other studies (Nelson et al.
2012c [this volume]) from which to do this. Moreover,
our data for the Greenlandic Thule Culture
(Nelson et al. 2012b [this volume]) gives both a test
of the diet-human isotopic shift and a direct measure
of the human marine end-points for each of the Eastern
and Western Settlement locales.
We begin the quantitative interpretation of the
Norse data with an evaluation pertaining to the
human endpoints, starting with the δ13C values, as
these measures are the most basic and best understood.
For the Eastern Settlement, this can be done
with few assumptions; for the Western Settlement,
the situation is more complicated but still very
For both settlements, the δ13C values of the Norse
cattle, sheep, and goats are very well characterized
by a single mean and standard error of -20.0
± 0.06‰ (Table 3). As discussed in Nelson et al.
2012c (this volume), this mean conforms very well
to general expectation. The observed variability is
very small, and so this is a very robust determination,
firmly supporting the basic suppositions of the
method for application to Greenland.
The wild caribou hunted by the Norse differ from
their domestic herbivorous counterparts, having unusual
δ13C values (Table 3), a result confirmed by a
separate study of modern Greenlandic caribou (Nelson
and Møhl 2003). This mean differs sufficiently
from that of the domestic animals to constitute an
isotopically distinct terrestrial protein source.
Zooarchaeological studies indicate that the wild
marine animals of primary importance to the Norse
were the harp and hooded seals in the Eastern Settlement
and the harp and harbor seals in the Western
Settlement (e.g., Enghoff 2003, McGovern 1985).
For these animals (Table 3; Nelson et al. 2012a [this
volume]), the marine carbon signature is evident
and the species means are similar but significantly
different. As for the terrestrial mammals, the Greenlandic
marine mammals cannot be described as one
uniform isotopic reservoir. The nitrogen isotopic
signatures are more complicated, as they reflect
trophic position in the food chain as well as a basic
marine/terrestrial difference. While this additional
variable makes the nitrogen endpoints less definitive
than those for carbon, it also provides additional
A potential source of marine protein which is
not discussed above is fish, especially capelin (Mallotus
villosus) and arctic char (Salvenius alpinus).
At certain times of the year, both are easily available
in large quantities. It is a curious and much-debated
fact that fish-bone is only rarely found in excavations
of Norse sites. Explanations for this strange absence
include non-use, poor preservation, and inadequate
excavation methods. We will not enter into this debate
here, as the important issue is that for whatever
reason, there were no fish bones in the collections to
provide samples for isotopic measurement. The impact
on this study is not large, as we can confidently
predict that the δ13C values of any fish caught by the
Norse will be very similar to those of the seals they
hunted and that the δ15N values will be a little lower,
reflecting these species relative positions in the marine
food chain. To a first approximation, the marine
protein from the fish is indirectly represented by the
The bone collagen of the domestic animals from
the Eastern Settlement had a mean δ15N value of 4.0
± 0.1‰ (Table 3), again a result in excellent accord
with expectation. The variability about the mean is
small. As discussed in detail in the study of the domestic
animals (Nelson et al. 2012c [this volume]),
the nitrogen data for the Western Settlement domestic
animals can be described as having the same
mean value as that for the Eastern Settlement animals,
but here the data are not so clear-cut, as some
individual animals, especially cattle, had δ15N values
much higher than usual (e.g., mean value of 7.6‰
for V48 Niaquusat, n = 9, and a four times higher
standard deviation for all Western Settlement cattle
of 2.2‰, n = 25–30, compared to that of the Eastern
Settlement; Nelson et al. 2012c [this volume]). This
was not random variation, as the occurrence and
magnitude of the anomaly varied from site to site
(ibid). Here, we use the same mean as for the Eastern
Settlement, but note that some animals had anomalous
high values, which indicate something unusual.
For this reason we do not quote values for SD and
SE for the Western settlement (Table 3), and we also
note that this may be an indication that the Western
cattle do not in fact constitute one uniform isotopic
reservoir (see discussion in Arneborg et al. 2012b
[this volume]). The assumption of similar isotopic
values for the two settlements is a simplification
driven by necessity. With the observed differences
between sites in the Western Settlement, one would
need to break down this region isotopically into local
areas/farms. However, for the purpose of interpretation
of the human isotopic values, this exercise
would be futile as in general we cannot establish
108 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 3
the connection between the human remains found
in cemeteries and the individual farms (see Conclusions
below, point 4).
The caribou δ15N values (Table 3) are clearly
terrestrial, well-defined, and significantly lower
than those of their domestic counterparts. As expected,
the seal δ15N values (Table 3) are very much
higher, reflecting both the heavier oceanic nitrogen
reservoir and the high trophic level of these marine
carnivores. There are also small but significant differences
between the different seal species.
In summary, the isotopic signatures for the
animals that formed the basis of the Norse diet are
firmly established here. In general, they are as expected,
but there are significant differences observed
between species within both the marine and the terrestrial
reservoirs. Interpretation of the human data
must be made with due consideration of these differences.
To establish human endpoints, one must add to
these animal means the isotopic shifts connecting
the human bone collagen to that of the animals they
consumed. The values normally applied are approximately
1‰ for carbon and 3–4‰ for the nitrogen
(Bocherens and Drucker 2003, Lidén 1995:17,
Masao and Wada 1984, Post 2002, Richards and
Hedges 1999, Schoeninger and DeNiro 1984, Sponheimer
et al. 2003). In our study of the Greenlandic
Thule Culture (Nelson et al. 2012b [this volume]),
we found that 0.8‰ and 4‰ connected well the
carbon and nitrogen data, respectively, with those of
their primary prey species. These shifts should thus
be applicable to the Norse as well.
The problem here is in defining the dietary means
to use as the basis for the shift, since neither the marine
nor the terrestrial protein reservoirs are isotopically
homogeneous. For the marine reservoir, the solution
is straightforward. First, the data for the Thule
Culture (Nelson et al. 2012b [this volume]) provide
excellent direct measures of the human marine endpoints
for each settlement, especially as a fundamental
interpretive question is to determine the extent to
which the Norse may have had a diet similar to that
of the Thule Culture. A second estimate of marine
human endpoints for the Norse can be made by using
information provided by the zooarchaeological studies
of their middens (e.g., Enghoff 2003, McGovern
1985), in which the relative numbers of bones for
the different seal species were determined. Since the
isotopic differences between the two seal species
is not large, even an approximate estimate of their
relative dietary importance can be used to weight the
measured seal means and thus obtain mean isotopic
values to use as a basis for the diet shift. These estimates
can then be compared with the Thule Culture
data as a test of procedure.
For the terrestrial endpoints, the situation is
simple for the Eastern Settlement Norse, as the domestic
animals had very well-defined isotopic means
and there were no significant numbers of caribou
available. This is not true for the Western Settlement,
where caribou were hunted and where some
domestic animals had unusually high δ15N values.
While it is again conceptually possible to use zooarchaeological
bone counts to make a first estimate
of the mean values for the terrestrial herbivores as
a group, the problems in so doing are much greater
than for the seals. First, the isotopic differences between
the wild and domestic herbivores are larger
and so the accuracy of the ratio is more critical. It
is difficult to determine protein consumption ratios
between the different food sources based on relative
bone counts of excavated remains of domestic
animals (cattle, sheep, and goat) and hunted caribou,
especially since factors other than meat consumption
can be involved. Likewise, only the meat from
some or most of the hunted animals may have been
brought to the farms, leaving the skeletal parts at the
hunting grounds rather than in the middens. Further,
there is no direct test against a human group. The
domestic and wild terrestrial protein reservoirs must
be treated separately. We apply these considerations
to each of the two settlements in turn.
Application to the human data
The Eastern Settlement. Using the marine animal
data in Table 3, assuming a Norse consumption ratio
of harp to hooded seal meat of about 4 to 1, and then
applying the isotopic shift given above yields calculated
marine carbon and nitrogen human endpoints
of -13.4‰ and 18.8‰, respectively. The mean
isotopic values and standard deviations for the five
Thule Culture individuals from the Uunartoq site in
the Eastern Settlement locale are -13.4 ± 0.3‰ and
19.3 ± 0.4‰ (Gulløv 2012 [this volume], Nelson et
al. 2012b [this volume]). As this site lies directly
across the fjord from the major Norse site Ø149,
these measures do indeed provide an excellent counterpoint
against which to compare the Norse data.
These two separate endpoint determinations are in
excellent agreement. We can conclude that the human
marine endpoints are well established for the
Eastern Settlement and that as expected, the Thule
provide good isotopic analogues for the Norse. The
corresponding terrestrial human endpoints projected
from the Norse domestic animal means are δ13C =
-19.2‰ and δ15N = 8‰. One can confidently predict
that humans consuming a mixture of terrestrial and
marine protein should lie on the straight line joining
2012 D.E. Nelson, J. Heinemeier, N. Lynnerup, Á.E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir, and J. Arneborg 109
isotopic values for consumers of both marine and
terrestrial protein will lie, with those consuming
equal amounts of protein falling midway.
It is at once obvious that the Eastern Settlement
Norse do not follow this prediction, as the isotopic
values for all individuals lie scattered well above the
predicted mixing line, especially at the terrestrial
end. Is our understanding of the method itself faulty
(cf. Hedges and Reynard 2007, who find generally
exaggerated faunal-human nitrogen isotopic shifts),
or are there special circumstances at play here?
The marine end-point is accurate. As discussed
above, the isotopic values for the local Thule Culture
people are very well predicted from the animal
means, and so the diet-human isotopic shift is
appropriate. Are these
people truly a good analogue
for the Norse?
Is there a problem with
the concept of linear
The slope of the
Norse data tends towards
marine point. A least
squares linear fit to all
the Norse data (excluding
only the Bishop)
gives the best-fit line
δ15N = 1.28 (δ13C) +
36.5 with the high correlation
R2 = 0.84. This equation
obtained from the
Norse data predicts exactly
the mean Thule
Culture δ15N given
their mean δ13C, and
so they do provide a
marine endpoint value
that is applicable to the
Norse. A linear fit to
both the Thule and the
Norse data gives the
even better result δ15N
= 1.29 (δ13C) + 36.6,
R2 = 0.89, confirming
that the mixing line is
linear. In Figure 4, this
best-fit linear equation
is shown as the solid
line drawn through the
The problem is
with the terrestrial
Figure 4 gives a plot of the Eastern Settlement
data. Here, the measures for each Norse individual
(Table 4) are plotted in red, with different symbols
for different sites. For comparison, the Thule Culture
data are plotted in purple. The means and standard
errors for the domestic animals are the green point
to the lower left and the corresponding means for the
two seal species in blue to the upper right. The two
identical black arrows represent the animal-human
isotopic shifts discussed above, with their bases on
the respective mean values for the terrestrial and marine
animals. The tips of these two arrows thus give
the best estimates for the human endpoint values.
The dotted line joining the tips of the two arrows
should then give the linear mixing line on which the
Figure 4. Eastern Settlement interpretation. The measures for each Norse individual (listed
in Table 4) are plotted in red, with different symbols for different sites. For comparison, the
Thule Culture data are plotted in purple. The means and standard errors of the mean, indicated
by error bars (here, smaller than symbol size), for the domestic animals are the green point
to the lower left and the corresponding means for the two seal species in blue to the upper
right. The two identical black arrows represent the animal-human isotopic shifts discussed in
the text, with their bases on the respective mean values for the terrestrial and marine animals.
The tips of these two arrows thus give the best estimates for the human endpoint values. The
dotted line joining the tips of the two arrows should then give the linear mixing line on which
the isotopic values for consumers of both marine and terrestrial protein will lie, with those
consuming equal amounts of protein falling midway.
110 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 3
2012c [this volume]), but unfortunately we cannot
link the human bone samples from the later churchyards
to individual farms and their cattle. Also, bone
analyses indicate a fairly high proportion of juvenile
to adult cattle bone in the middens (Enghoff 2003:70
ff., McGovern 1985), possibly indicative of preferential
There may be an additional “step” in the domestic
food chain which could be considered. Recent stable
isotopic studies of modern dairy products might be
considered here. To quote, “organic fertilizers and
intensive farming methods increase the level of 15N
in the soil and consequently in the plants, in milk,
and in cheese” (Pillonel et al. 2003). We can extend
this list to meat and the people who consume the
meat, milk, and cheese. The high nitrogen values
observed for the Greenlandic Norse are consistent
with this observation (see also Bogaard et al. 2007),
and we can speculate that these values reflect Norse
field management methods (see, e.g., Buckland et
al. 2009, Commisso and Nelson 2010 and references
therein). One might speculate whether consumption
of dairy products as such could have contributed
in particular to the observed discrepancy between
the human data and the animal bone collagen data.
However, while dairy products were certainly a fundamental
part of Norse agriculture (Arneborg et al.
2012a [this volume], McGovern 1985), there is no
evidence that δ15N can distinguish dairy from other
animal products—on the contrary, all available data
support the assumption that dairy and meat products
from the same animal are isotopically the same (see,
e.g., O’Connell and Hedges 1999:63, Privat et al.
Given the present data for the Eastern Settlement,
an empirical increase of the predicted terrestrial
human nitrogen endpoint by an extra 4‰ (a second
trophic level) fits the observed human data very
well, yielding endpoints of δ13C = -19.2‰ and δ15N
= 12‰. As discussed above, the corresponding marine
endpoints are well established at δ13C = -13.4‰
and δ15N = 19‰. Due to the nature of the data underlying
these conclusions, it is difficult to provide
an analytical determination of the uncertainty for
each of these values, but we can make an estimate:
It would be difficult to change these δ13C endpoints
by more than ≈0.3‰ or the δ15N endpoints by more
than ≈1‰ and still satisfy all the data. In summary,
the δ13C domestic-marine consumption scale is well
established for the Eastern Settlement, and we have
interesting independent information provided by the
nitrogen data, discussed in more detail below in the
Western Settlement. For the Western Settlement
population, the marine species of primary
end-points. Can we argue that the isotopic shifts
between food and consumer are different for consumers
of terrestrial herbivore protein than they
are for those of marine carnivore protein? The differences
required to fit the Norse data are large.
There is abundant data in the literature for human
terrestrial consumers in a C3-plant environment that
place their carbon endpoint values within the range
of about -20 ± 1‰. Greenland is a C3 environment
and the human δ13C endpoint predicted from the
Norse domestic animal data is -19.2‰, well within
the range of expected values. The carbon endpoint
cannot provide an explanation for the discrepancy.
The nitrogen shift used here is 4‰, which is at the
upper end of the range (3 to 4‰) usually found
in isotopic diet studies and which is seen to work
very well at the marine end of the scale. Given the
precisely determined mean nitrogen value (<δ15N>
= 4.0 ± 0.1‰) for the domestic animals, the human
terrestrial nitrogen endpoint should be within the
range of δ15N = 8 ± 1‰ as shown by the arrow tip.
In comparison, at the endpoint value δ13C =
-19.2‰, the best-fit line drawn through the human
data in Figure 4 has δ15N = 12‰. This analysis indicates
a diet-consumer shift for nitrogen as large
as that usually attributed to more than two trophic
levels of consumption. This shift is too large to be
acceptable, especially given the good fit at the marine
end of the scale. Even so, the explanation must
lie with the nitrogen isotopes, as the carbon values
are too well constrained.
What could cause an apparent δ15N shift as large
as two trophic levels? Firstly, we note that similarly
high trophic level shifts are not uncommon in other
Medieval/Later Medieval populations (e.g., Müldner
and Richards 2007). Secondly, it is well known
that the nitrogen isotopic values of suckling animals
are 3 to 4‰ above those of their mothers (cf. Kelly
2000). The Norse data could thus be explained by
the presumption that the terrestrial protein in their
diets came entirely from suckling veal, lamb, and
kid. However, the δ15N values of the bones of very
young animals from Norse middens in the Eastern
Settlement (Nelson et al. 2012c [this volume]) do
not show evidence for such a large shift. This is
an unlikely explanation. On the other hand, the
extreme isotopic variability observed in the Western
Settlement cattle and their high δ15N values in
juveniles (Nelson et al. 2012c [this volume]) raise
the general question of the representativeness of our
cattle samples in relation to their Norse consumers.
In the Western Settlement, the isotopically extreme
cattle samples are from an individual farm (V48
Niaquusat) with challenging conditions for farming
(Arneborg et al. 2012a [this volume], Nelson et al.
2012 D.E. Nelson, J. Heinemeier, N. Lynnerup, Á.E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir, and J. Arneborg 111
ues. As seen on this plot, the isotopic means for the
terrestrial caribou are clearly separate. At the marine
end of the scale, the means and standard errors are
given for the harp and the harbor seals as well as the
values for two Thule Culture individuals from the
site Qoornoq in Nuuk fjord.
Arrows identical to those in the Eastern Settlement
plot are used to connect the animal means
to the human endpoints. For the marine end of the
scale, the base of the arrow is placed at isotopic
means weighted heavily in favor of the harp seals,
reflecting the relative importance of the species to
both Norse and Neo-Eskimo. As seen in Figure 5
(and discussed in detail in Nelson et al. 2012b [this
volume]), this procedure accurately predicts the two
Thule Culture values for which the means (δ13C =
-13.0 ± 0.3‰ and δ15N = 19.3 ± 0.2‰ [stdv.]) are
very close to those
for the Thule Culture
in the Eastern Settlement
the human marine
endpoints are firmly
at the terrestrial end
of the scale is more
the isotopic values
for the domestic and
the wild animals are
so distinctly different
that we cannot provide
a single mean
value for all terrestrial
animals. In Figure
5, the Western Settlement
data are plotted
in the same manner
as was done for the
except that here we
have placed identical
arrows at each of the
means, giving two
sets of distinct hypothetical
endpoints, those for
only wild caribou,
and those for humans
consuming only domestic
These two terrestrial
importance was the migrating harp seal and that of
secondary importance, the harbor seal. They also
hunted the local caribou, which complicates matters
because of the unusual isotopic signatures of these
animals. Further, we noted in the study of the Western
Settlement domesticates (Nelson et al. 2012c,
[this volume]) that some of these domesticates had
unusually high δ15N values.
In Figure 5, the mean bone collagen isotopic data
for the Western Settlement animals of importance to
the Norse and the values for the Norse themselves
(in black symbols) are plotted in the same manner as
was done for the Eastern Settlement. The δ13C and
δ15N means for the Western Settlement domestic animals
as a whole are identical to those for the Eastern
Settlement (Table 3), although we note again that
some Western Settlement animals had high δ15N val-
Figure 5. Western Settlement interpretation. The mean bone collagen isotopic data for the Western
Settlement animals of importance to the Norse and the values for the Norse themselves (in
black symbols) are plotted in the same manner as was done for the Eastern Settlement (Fig. 4).
The δ13C and δ15N means for the Western Settlement domestic animals as a whole are identical
to those for the Eastern Settlement (Fig. 4, Table 3), although we note again that some Western
Settlement animals had high δ15N values. The isotopic means for the terrestrial caribou are
clearly separate. At the marine end of the scale, the means and standard errors are given for the
harp and the harbor seals as well as the values for two Thule Culture individuals from the site
Qoornoq in Nuuk fjord.
112 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 3
can use the three sets of endpoints in simple massbalance
calculations to predict possible results from
different relative consumptions from the three reservoirs,
and then compare the predictions to the human
data. No individuals have values that are consistent
with more than ≈25% caribou protein in the diet. The
actual values will likely be much less.
We must, however, emphasize the uncertainties
in such attempted reconstructions for the Western
Settlement, where the high cattle δ15N values might
be more representative for the human diet than assumed.
In that case, the “extra” 4‰ nitrogen shift
would not be required to arrive at a terrestrial
(domestic)-marine mixing line which would fit the
human isotope data (Fig. 5) without assumption of
any caribou component.
The data permit quantitative dietary analyses,
especially for the Eastern Settlement inhabitants.
Even though the terrestrial nitrogen endpoints are
speculative, the carbon endpoints are firmly established
at -19.2‰ and -13.4‰, respectively, for the
terrestrial and marine protein reservoirs. Further,
there is direct evidence that the mixing line scales
linearly, as predicted. The midpoint value at δ13C
= -16.3‰ is thus a good estimate for those obtaining
half their protein from their domestic animals
and half from the marine mammals, while those
consuming 25% marine protein will have δ13C =
-17.8‰ and those consuming about 75% marine
protein will have δ13C = -14.9‰. Using this scale,
we can translate the Norse mean data previously
presented (Table 7) into quantitative estimates
for the relative amounts of marine and terrestrial
protein consumed. The mean δ13C value for the
Eastern Settlement as a whole and for each of the
two sites Ø149 and Ø111 Herjolfsnes individually
is -15.7‰, indicating a relative consumption of
marine protein of 60%. On average then, between
one-half and two-thirds of the protein consumed
by the people buried at the two sites was obtained
from the sea.
Means hide individual detail. The upper plot
in Figure 6 gives the distribution of δ13C values
for the Eastern Settlement sites. (Again, the Ø29a
Brattahlid data and the Bishop are omitted as irrelevant.)
At the top is drawn the scale representing
the relative consumption of marine protein
as based on the carbon scale. Only 5 of the 33
individuals obtained more of their protein from
the terrestrial than from the marine reservoir. Of
these, the three with highest terrestrial consumption
are two younger and an older adult woman
endpoints are each connected by a dotted line to the
marine endpoint, and so the isotopic values of individuals
consuming protein from all three sources
will lie scattered somewhere between these two
lines. It will not be possible to provide unique determinations
of the relative amounts from each source
without further information.
At first glance, that does not appear to be necessary,
as with only one significant exception, the
Norse human data lie at or above the domesticmarine
line, as was found for the Eastern Settlement
Norse. It is then tempting to conclude that we can
simply ignore the caribou as a basic food source, but
that would be incorrect. We know from the Eastern
Settlement data that some factor raises the human
nitrogen values for consumers of domestic protein
over those expected from the bone collagen of the
animals consumed. While the Western Settlement
Norse data do trend towards the well-fixed marine
endpoint, the correlation between the carbon and
nitrogen isotopes is not nearly so strong as in the
Eastern Settlement data. A least squares linear fit
to the Western Settlement human data yields an R2
value of only 0.38. Obviously, more factors are at
play than was the case for the Eastern Settlement,
and we must include the caribou.
What can be said with certainty? First, as noted
above, the marine endpoints for both carbon and
nitrogen are well established. Next, both carbon
and nitrogen endpoints for the hypothetical consumers
of caribou are equally well fixed, as is the
carbon value for the domesticates. As was seen in
the Eastern Settlement data, the human nitrogen
endpoint predicted from the domesticate mean is
far too low.
As a purely empirical approach, we can tentatively
apply the assumption that the same 4‰ extra
nitrogen shift applies here as in the much more
straight forward case of the Eastern Settlement. The
solid line in Figure 5 gives the resulting domestichuman
mixing line. It is almost identical to that derived
from the empirical fit to the Eastern Settlement
human data. Humans with values falling at or above
this line are unlikely to have had much caribou in
their diet. Significant consumption of caribou will
shift the human values below the line and will cause
the human δ13C values to be shifted towards the
marine end of the scale. That is fortunate, as a primary
goal is to determine the relative contributions
of the domestic and wild animals to the Norse diet.
Any caribou consumption will thus tend to move the
carbon data to the “wild side” of the δ13C scale, i.e.,
towards caribou and seal.
Without other information, it is not possible to
determine the contribution of caribou protein. One
2012 D.E. Nelson, J. Heinemeier, N. Lynnerup, Á.E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir, and J. Arneborg 113
nificantly different from those of a Thule Culture
woman from the same locale. (This observation
prompted a re-examination of the crania from
which the samples were taken, as a Thule Culture
person buried in a Norse cemetery would be most
interesting. There were no mistakes in either sample
taking or racial affiliation.)
For most people in the Eastern Settlement then,
without any consideration of chronology, the marine
animals played a greater role in their protein diet
than did their domestic animals, and for a few, domestic
protein was almost absent as a substantial dietary
element. It seems
that the sea was a more
fundamental protein resource
for the people in
the Eastern Settlement
than was their agriculture.
Note, however, as
seen from the map in
Figure 1, the human
bones in Figure 4 are all
from coastal sites (Ø111
and Ø149), except for
one (Ø47) (Arneborg
et al. 2012a [this volume]).
As noted, deriving
the Western Settlement
is confused by the presence
of the isotopically
Even so, we can provide
While we could
attempt to use the nitrogen
data to estimate
the impact of caribou
consumption, a more
is to simply apply the
δ13C scale based on the
carbon endpoint for the
domestic animals and
on the well-established
marine endpoint. Those
people who consumed
significant amounts of
caribou protein will
have had their measures
the marine (or, put in
another way, the huntfrom
Ø149. Another (sample # 20 from Ø47) is
an adult male, and the fifth is a young person
in his/her early teens (sample # 15) from Ø111
Herjolfsnes. Again, there is no apparent correlation
with age or sex. The remaining 28 individuals
are scattered at or below 50% terrestrial protein
consumption. Most (24) of them obtained between
50% and 75% of their protein from the sea. The
remaining 4 had diets containing more than 75%
marine protein. One of these latter (sample # 234,
KAL–1021, an adult of unknown sex from the
cemetery at Ø149) has isotopic values not sig-
Figure 6. Marine protein consumption estimates for Eastern and Western Settlements.
114 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 3
ing) end of the scale. The results obtained will then
be maximum values for consumption of marine
The mean δ13C value for the Western Settlement
as a whole is -16.2‰, corresponding to a
maximum marine protein intake of a little less than
50%. If these data are representative, and again
without any considerations of chronology, the
people of the Western Settlement would appear to
be less reliant on the marine reservoir than their
neighbors to the south. However, this observation
is hardly archaeologically significant in view of
the small numerical isotopic difference (≈0.3‰ or
approximately twice the observed standard error of
0.14‰ within the two settlements; see Table 7) and
the issue of representativeness regarding coast/
inland site location within both settlements represented
in Figure 6. Thus, as discussed above, the
Eastern Settlements samples have a clear coastal
bias, while the Western Settlement samples are
from one single churchyard (V51 Sandnes) only,
except for two (V7 Anavik) (Fig. 2). As before, the
observed mean masks more interesting details. The
lower portion of Figure 6 gives the distribution of
δ13C measures for the Western Settlement individuals.
Again, no provisional data are plotted. Here,
the consumption ratio scale is very slightly different
from that for the Eastern Settlement, as the
best estimate for the marine endpoint is -13.0‰,
while the same domestic endpoint applies. Note
again that the estimate of the relative marine consumption
is a maximum value. The distribution
of human data is different from that in the Eastern
Settlement, where the majority was more strongly
dependent on marine protein. Here, more than
half the individuals (19 of 35) have δ13C values
consistent with a maximum marine protein intake
of 50%. The greatest terrestrial consumer is an
adult male from V7 Anavik, one of the two secure
measures from that site. Three V51 Sandnes individuals
with δ13C < -17‰ are those of a child and
two adult males. At the other end of the scale, nine
individuals had δ13C values > -15.5‰, and were
thus heavily reliant on protein from the marine
animals. One of these, a young adult woman from
V51 Sandnes (sample # 4, KAL–961) also has an
unusually low δ15N value, which places her exactly
on the predicted mixing line (Fig. 5) expected for
a consumer of about 25% caribou and 75% seal
meat. No protein from the domestic animals is isotopically
required in her diet. In summary, there is
a wide range of consumption, ranging from those
who obtained at most 1/4 of their protein from the
sea, to those whose protein intake was almost entirely
from the wild animals.
In the analyses above, no quantitative use has
been made of the nitrogen data, as the calculated
terrestrial nitrogen endpoint does not predict the
measured human data for either settlement. Future
work must seek explanations for this discrepancy,
especially as there is such a high linear correlation
between the carbon and nitrogen isotopes for the
Eastern Settlement population as a whole. For the
Western Settlement, the addition of the caribou
means that we cannot use the nitrogen scale to
provide more than estimates of minimum domestic
protein consumption. Here, the low correlation
between carbon and nitrogen isotopes may then
indicate that those individuals whose δ15N values
fall well below the solid line in Figure 5 have consumed
more caribou. Several individuals stand out
in this respect.
In all these considerations, we have seen no correlations
between diet and the age or sex of the individual.
We do not have the requisite archaeological
information to correlate diet and individual status.
From these data alone, then, the wide range of dietary
differences between individuals could reflect
status, circumstance, or changes over time.
Despite the complexity of interpreting these
data, this application of the isotopic dietary method
to analysis of the Greenland Norse dietary
economy does provide responses to the questions
posed at the outset. The extent to which this new
information is useful to current archaeological
reconstruction will be a topic of the final paper in
this project series (Arneborg et al. 2012b [this volume]).
Below, we respond to the questions one by
1) Are the isotopic signatures of the two food reservoirs
of interest here (the terrestrial and marine
biospheres) sufficiently characteristic to provide
reliable information on Norse diet?
The simple answer to this question is yes. We
can use the animal data to predict the bone collagen
isotopic values for the humans who consumed
them. At the marine end of the scale, the accuracy
of this prediction could be tested and was confirmed
directly by measurement of Thule hunters
from sites in each of the two settlements. All in
all, the data underlying the interpretations are solid
and can provide reliable dietary information. In
particular, the carbon data are sufficiently distinct
and well understood that quantitative consumption
ratios for individuals can be determined, as was
confirmed by the unusual isotopic values for the
2012 D.E. Nelson, J. Heinemeier, N. Lynnerup, Á.E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir, and J. Arneborg 115
It is clear that the isotopic method provides reliable
information on Greenlandic diet even at the
level of the individual.
2) To what extent did the Greenlandic Norse community
as a whole rely on the terrestrial reservoir
(in effect, their agriculture) and to what extent on
hunting the marine mammals?
For the two Norse settlements taken as a whole,
the basic dietary economy was based about as much
on hunting as it was on their domestic animals. This
general statement encompasses 80 individuals from
7 different cemeteries in the two settlements, but it is
a broad generalization that masks much interesting
3) Were there differences between the two settlements
in this reliance?
To the extent that the individuals measured are
indeed representative of the populations in each of
the settlements, it would appear that there were differences.
For the people from the Eastern Settlement
as a whole, the mean δ13C value indicates that they
obtained about 60% of their protein from the marine
reservoir. Interpreting the Western Settlement data is
much more complicated because of the isotopically
distinct caribou and the unusual nitrogen isotopic
values for some of the domestic animals. At a maximum,
the people on average obtained ≤50% of their
protein from marine sources.
On the basis of the present isotopic evidence
then, the people in the Eastern Settlement on average
had a higher reliance on marine protein than did
those in the Western Settlement. However, the mean
isotopic values do not take into account the increasing
marine consumption over time, which means a
high mean marine signature for the Eastern Settlement
as it was populated about 100 years longer than
the Western Settlement.
4) Were there differences between sites in the same
settlement? Is there any evidence for specialization?
We cannot address this question in detail because
of the nature of the samples. Except for the
samples from Ø29a Tjodhilde’s Church, all were
taken from cemeteries connected to what we understand
as communal churches, and so we cannot
know which of the burials are people from the
farm at which the cemetery was located, and which
from another farm in the area served by the church.
Specialization at the farm level is thus beyond the
reach of these data.
5) Were there differences between individuals? Can
any such differences be correlated with age, sex, or
For the first of these questions, the isotopic data
provide an unequivocal answer: there were great
dietary differences between individuals. In each
settlement, some people consumed more terrestrial
than marine protein, some consumed about equal
amounts, and the diets of others were based more
on the sea than on land animals. In both settlements,
there are a few individuals who were heavily reliant
on marine protein; in both, there was one individual
whose isotopic values are consistent with a diet obtained
entirely through hunting.
In the present data set, we see no evidence for
real differences between the diets of men and women
or between individuals of different ages. The large
individual differences are then likely connected to
status or circumstance, but not to sex or age.
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numbers of caribou were hunted. The most likely
explanation would seem to be that the anomalously
high human nitrogen values reflect either a
general weakness in the method itself (cf. Hedges
and Reynard 2007) or somehow reflect Norse field
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