Organic residue analysis of hunter-gatherer pottery from Zengpiyan, China, to investigate vessel use and diet

Student thesis: Master's ThesisMaster of Science (MSc)


The chemical analysis of organic residues associated with archaeological artefacts can help to unravel ancient diet, food habits, trade and economy. Organic residue analysis (ORA) of archaeological ceramics targets preserved biomolecules originating from processing foodstuffs. Lipids can be separated and characterised as individual molecular species by a suite of analytical techniques. By applying the archaeological biomarker concept, we can assign biomolecular components to specific animal and plant sources based on well-established biomarker criteria.
Zengpiyan is an early Neolithic site located in southern China, occupied between 12,000 and 7,500 B.P. Subsistence activities are defined from the zooarchaeological and archaeobotanical remains investigated thus far, with hunting and gathering seems to be the major subsistence strategies for food procurement. Freshwater shellfish and wild deer bones dominated in the total faunal assemblage, being the staple foods. No trace of any rice cultivation existed, and previous investigation of plant exploitation provided only limited information. This project applied ORA to investigate the subsistence practices in Zengpiyan, in combination with archaeological evidence to test pre-existing hypothesizes and develop a more comprehensive picture of the subsistence practices of the inhabitants of this site.
A total of 58 archaeological potsherds from different cultural phases of Zengpiyan were analysed, using both the acidified methanol and solvent extraction methods. The potsherds exhibited a recovery rate of about 33% with a mean lipid concentration of 0.22 mg g-1. Ten total lipid extracts were dominated by degraded animal fats, C16:0 and C18:0 fatty acids, indicating the processing of animal products. The δ13C values of the major fatty acids determined the sources as ruminant adipose and non-ruminant adipose fats, which correlated with the dominance of deer and pig bones recovered.
Novel long-chain fatty acid distributions were observed, together with other plant biomarkers, i.e. n-alcohols, n-alkanes and diterpenoids, although these were only present in low abundance. Although dihydroxy fatty acids, APAAs and isoprenoids were detected in 2 extracts their compositions could not confirm the processing of aquatic products in the vessels. The wide range of 13C values observed for the animal fats suggest the animals foraged on a mixture of C3 and C4 plants, possibly due seasonal migrations or a mixed local plant ecosystem.
Date of Award24 Mar 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorRichard P Evershed (Supervisor)

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