Reconstructing Bronze Age diets and farming strategies at the early Bronze Age sites of La Bastida and Gatas (southeast Iberia) using stable isotope analysis

Corina Knipper*, Cristina Rihuete-Herrada, Jordi Voltas, Petra Held, Vicente Lull, Rafael Micó, Roberto Risch, Kurt W. Alt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


The El Argar society of the Bronze Age in the southeast of the Iberian Peninsula (2200–1550 cal BCE) was among the first complex societies in Europe. Its economy was based on cereal cultivation and metallurgy, it was organized hierarchically, and successively expanded its territory. Most of the monumentally fortified settlements lay on steeply sloped mountains, separated by fertile plains, and allowed optimal control of the area. Here, we explore El Argar human diets, animal husbandry strategies, and food webs using stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of charred cereal grains as well as human and animal bone collagen. The sample comprised 75 human individuals from the sites of La Bastida (n = 52) and Gatas (n = 23), 32 domesticated and wild animals as well as 76 barley and 29 wheat grains from two chronological phases of a total time span of ca. 650 years. The grains indicate extensive cereal cultivation under rain-fed conditions with little to moderate application of manure. Especially at La Bastida, crops and their by-products contributed significantly to the forage of the domesticated animals, which attests to a strong interrelation of cultivation and animal husbandry. Trophic level spacing and Bayesian modelling confirm that human diets were largely based on barley with some contribution of meat or dairy products. A cross-sectional analysis of bone collagen suggests that children were breastfed until about 1.5–2 years old, and infants from Gatas may have suffered from more metabolic stress than those at La Bastida. Adults of both sexes consumed similar diets that reflect social and chronological variation to some extent. Despite significantly higher δ13C and δ15N values at La Bastida than at Gatas, the isotopic data of the staple crops and domestic animals from both sites indicate that such differences do not necessarily correspond to different average human diets, but to agricultural strategies. These results urge for a reassessment of previous isotope studies in which only human remains have been taken into account. The study highlights that disentangling the complex influences on human isotope compositions requires a firm set of comparative data.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numbere0229398
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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