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Faculty for Biology, Chemistry and Earth Sciences

Department Soil Ecology - Prof. Dr. Eva Lehndorff

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Prost, K; Birk, J; Lehndorff, E; Gerlach, R; Amelung, W: Steroid biomarkers revisited - improved source identification of faecal remains in archaeological soil material, PLoS ONE, 12(1), e0164882 (2017), doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0164882
Steroids are used as faecal markers in environmental and in archaeological studies, because they provide insights into ancient agricultural practices and the former presence of animals. Up to now, steroid analyses could only identify and distinguish between herbivore, pig, and human faecal matter and their residues in soils and sediments. We hypothesized that a finer differentiation between faeces of different livestock animals could be achieved when the analyses of several steroids is combined (Δ5-sterols, 5α-stanols, 5β-stanols, epi-5β-stanols, stanones, and bile acids). We therefore reviewed the existing literature on various faecal steroids from livestock and humans and analysed faeces from old livestock breed (cattle, horse, donkey, sheep, goat, goose, and pig) and humans. Additionally, we performed steroid analyses on soil material of four different archaeological periods (sites located in the Lower Rhine Basin, Western Germany, dating to the Linearbandkeramik, Urnfield Period / Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman Age) with known or supposed faecal inputs. By means of already established and newly applied steroid ratios of the analysed faeces together with results from the literature, all considered livestock faeces, except sheep and cattle, could be distinguished on the basis of their steroid signatures. Most remarkably was the identification of horse faeces (via the ratio: epi-5β-stigmastanol: 5β-stigmastanol + epicoprostanol: coprostanol; together with the presence of chenodeoxycholic acid) and a successful differentiation between goat (with chenodeoxycholic acid) and sheep/cattle faeces (without chenodeoxycholic acid). The steroid analysis of archaeological soil material confirmed the supposed faecal inputs, even if these inputs had occurred several thousand years ago.
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