Understanding the historic past can be incredibly challenging. Written records are only as accurate as the knowledge of the author, and historical narratives can be influenced by political orientations and specific agendas. Even accurate depictions of historical events may not reveal the whole truth; how some people may have experienced a particular event may differ radically from how the majority of people experienced it. The version of history that makes its way into history books can be incomplete.
That’s why archaeology is necessary to corroborate written documents of historical events. Physical evidence is a powerful check on speculation, deceit, and inaccuracy.
But archaeology and its related discipline, biological anthropology, can do more than just confirm or falsify historical narratives; it can reveal details of people’s lives (and deaths) unobtainable through other means. Paleopathology can tell us exactly how young men died on a July afternoon in 1863 in a Pennsylvania peach orchard, or how an older man spent the last few hours of his life 5,000 years ago. Anthropological genetics can tell us that an anonymous skeleton found under a parking lot belonged to a famous king whose family tree was not quite what recorded history claims.
And stable isotope analysis can tell us about diet in ancient times: what a person eats is literally archived in his or her bones. If your diet consists mainly of C4 plants (like corn, sorghum, and millet) which undergo a particular photosynthetic pathway, you likely have a different ratio of isotopic elements 13C and 12C (carbon atoms with different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei) than if you eat mostly C3 plants (temperate crops like barley, wheat, and potatoes), which undergo a different photosynthetic pathway.
Live near the coast and eat seafood? You likely have more 13C relative to 12C than inland dwellers because your carbon derives mainly from the ocean rather than the atmosphere. The ratio of nitrogen isotopes 15N and 14N will be similarly dependent on what kinds of food you eat. Finally, your isotopic ratios will also reflect how much of your diet is derived from animal vs. plant sources (your “trophic level”).
Together, and in the context of region-wide studies of isotopic ratios from different historical periods, the analysis of multiple stable isotopes can give a good indication of the diet of different individuals in the past.
I was thinking of how this kind of study can tell us such personal stories of history while reading a recent study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology by Sammantha Holder and colleagues: Reconstructing diet in Napoleon’s Grand Army using stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis.
Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812 was marked by terrible logistical disaster and resulted in profound loss of life within his own army. Although his forces reached Moscow, they found the city abandoned and burning—a deliberate tactic on the part of the Russian army to prevent the French soldiers from finding provisions.
Forced to retreat to find supplies, the French encountered terrible winter conditions and further disruptions to their supply lines. Total estimates of casualties vary, but hundreds of thousands of soldiers died in the campaign, many due to the combination of starvation, disease, and exposure while the army retreated.
The practice of requiring soldiers to “live off the land” to supplement their rations likely contributed a great deal to this loss of life. This rendered them extremely vulnerable to the Russians’ scorched earth tactics which left them little to forage or steal. But Napoleon’s Grande Armée was ethnically and socially heterogeneous. Were their origins, social status, and access to food during this time of deprivation reflected in their diet? This is one of the questions that Holder et al. set out to address in their research.
They analysed stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes from the remains of 78 individuals excavated from a Napoleonic-era mass grave in Vilnius, Lithuania where the army had retreated in December of 1812. The presence of uniform buttons from multiple Napoleonic regiments in the grave confirmed that most of these individuals were members of the army. However, it is unlikely that everyone in the grave was necessarily a soldier; many male and female civilians were associated with the military in various capacities, and female remains were found in the mass grave.
Holder et al. found surprising variation in isotopic ratios among the individuals excavated from the mass grave. For example, one group of individuals had primarily C4-based diets, suggesting that they may have originated from Italy or Poland where similar isotopic ratios have been found in remains from this period. This interpretation was bolstered by the presence of buttons from the uniforms of Italian and Polish regiments in the mass grave.
However, the majority of individuals from the grave ate C3 plant-based diets—characteristic of many Northern European countries–but individuals differed significantly in the amount of terrestrial animal protein they consumed.
One group, which ate limited animal protein, may have been regular soldiers or conscripts. Another cluster of individuals, which included three women, ate a diet containing a significantly higher amount of terrestrial animal protein. The authors interpret this result to indicate they were high-ranking officers (and perhaps their family members).
Holder et al. concluded that the strikingly wide range of isotopic ratios found in the remains from the mass grave was “indicative of dietary variation associated with a multiethnic and socially stratified military population.”
These results are perhaps not all that surprising. Napoleon’s Grande Armée is known to have been composed of soldiers from multiple populations, including French, Polish, Austrians, Italians, and Spanish. C3 plants (wheat and barley) are known to have been the most commonly consumed plants in Northern European diets. C4 plants (such as millet) were often consumed in southern Europe, and thus the isotopic ratios of the soldiers may have reflected their geographic origins. In addition, the amount of meat in a diet was directly related to social status. Class differences between officers, regular soldiers, conscripts, and camp followers would have likely meant that there was unequal access to certain kinds of foods (such as meat) most of the campaign. Limited supplies during the winter retreat from Russia would have likely driven this inequality of access to even more extremes.
Interestingly, when compared to other European military forces (such as members of Britain’s Royal Navy buried in a cemetery at Gosport), the dietary variation in the French army was significantly higher. As more studies of this type are conducted, it will be interesting to see if other countries’ armies were similarly diverse in their diet. I would be particularly curious to see how Napoleon’s Russian opponents ate during the same period of time.
As we said in the introductory post to our new blog, archaeological inference is based on complex, multi-layered evidence, and takes a holistic approach to understanding the past. Holder et al.’s study is a good example of how even the large scale events of history can be illuminated through an archaeological study of the tiniest details of individual people’s lives.
Holder S. et al. 2017. Reconstructing diet in Napoleon’s Grand Army using stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis. American Journal of Physical Anthropology DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.23184