Using strontium isotope analysis on modern populations to determine geolocation reliability in a forensic context
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Positive identification of skeletonized human remains is a difficult task when dental records and/or DNA are unavailable. Through archaeological research, strontium (Sr) isotope analysis has successfully been used to trace an individual back to their place of birth using cortical bone and tooth enamel. This method has the potential, in forensic anthropological science, to help narrow down the search for missing persons to a specific geographical location. It has not been tested thoroughly on modern populations though, which is needed before applying in a forensic setting. This study used dental enamel from teeth of 78 individuals in the New England region of the United States (U.S.). The birthplaces represented by these individuals include New England and the greater Northeast of the U.S., Northwest region of the U.S., Central America, Caribbean Islands, West Africa, and Europe. Local faunal and water samples were also collected for local range comparisons. The samples were cleaned, approximately 10 mg of enamel removed from each tooth, acid washed, dried, and dissolved in nitric acid before analyzing the samples using a thermal ionization mass spectrometer (TIMS) for analysis of 87Sr/86Sr ratios. The human 87Sr/86Sr ratios were grouped by geographical region. An analysis of variance was used to test for regional variation and significant differences were found. The samples from the U.S. (excluding those from the Northwest) were significantly different from the samples in Central America, Caribbean Islands, West Africa, and Europe. Central American samples were also significantly different from the other groups. No significant differences were observed between the Caribbean Islands, West Africa and Europe. A significant difference was seen between the strontium ratios in the West Africa group based on bottled water vs. tap water that individuals reported drinking. The faunal samples from Pembroke, MA and water sample from Braintree, MA were not significantly different from the New England human samples, but the Brighton, MA water sample was significantly different. Based on the data, regional differences in 87Sr/86Sr ratios are detectable using strontium isotope analysis, yet a larger sample size for each of the regions is needed to strengthen the statistical results. The results suggest that the differences observed are due to a combination of geological effects and influences from the globalization of food. Further research is warranted by combining the analysis of hydrogen (δ2H) and oxygen (δ18O) isotopes to the strontium analysis. This will complement the strontium data by providing more insight to the local drinking water and potential effects of an increasingly homogenous diet within cultural regions.
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