Dating Corn Domestication Using Carbon Isotopes
This activity guides the analysis of a published scientific figure from a study on prehistoric human food sources. In this study, scientists used carbon isotopes to determine how the advent of agriculture affected human diets.
Different types of plants contain different ratios of carbon isotopes. When animals eat plants, the carbon isotopes are stored in their tissues, including bone collagen. In this study, scientists measured carbon isotopes in early human skeletons from North American. The figure shows data of carbon isotope ratios from skeletons found in Illinois, Ohio, and West Virginia dated 4000 BCE to 1500 CE. Each point corresponds to a different location; the numbers and sexes of the individuals found at that location are shown in parentheses.
The “Educator Materials” document includes a captioned figure, background information, graph interpretation, and discussion questions. The “Student Handout” includes a captioned figure and background information. The original article is also provided as a download.
Student Learning Targets
- Analyze and interpret data from a scientific figure.
- Describe how isotope analysis can be used to reconstruct ancient diets.
agriculture, anthropology, C3 and C4 carbon fixation, carbon-12 (12C), carbon-13 (13C), error bar, isotopic signature, maize, paleontology, scatter plot
van der Merwe, N. J. “Carbon Isotopes, Photosynthesis, and Archaeology: Different pathways of photosynthesis cause characteristic changes in carbon isotope ratios that make possible the study of prehistoric human diets.” American Scientist 70, 6 (1982): 596–606. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27851731.
Accessibility Level (WCAG compliance)
HS-LS4-1; SEP2, SEP4, SEP5
AP Biology (2019)
ENE-1.A, EVO-1.N; SP1, SP4
IB Biology (2016)
AP Environmental Science (2020)
Learning Objectives & Practices: EIN-2.C, SP5
IB Environmental Systems and Societies (2017)
Common Core (2010)
Math.S-ID.3, Math.S-IC.1; MP2, MP5