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Freshwater reservoir offsets on radiocarbon-dated dog bone from the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River, USA

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Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology


The canine surrogacy approach is becoming increasingly popular in North American archaeology to assess human diets through isotope analyses when Native American human bone is unavailable for destructive analysis. The assumption is that dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) had diets similar to those of the humans with whom they lived (Edwards, Jeske & Coltrain, 2017). These analyses of dog bone may also include radiocarbon assays to determine the chronological placements of the dog remains under study or more broadly of features and layers within the particular sites where the dog bones were found. Dog bone may also be radiocarbon dated when used for other analyses such as ancient DNA (e.g., Perri et al., 2019).

The North American Great Lakes region, including the lakes, their tributaries, nearby smaller lakes and their tributaries, and the St. Lawrence River were important Native American fisheries (Cleland, 1982). The zooarchaeological record attests to the importance of freshwater fish in regional subsistence systems prior to sustained European presence in the region (e.g., Hawkins et al., 2019). Ethnohistoric records indicate the importance of freshwater fish in both human (Heidenreich, 1971) and dog (Lovis & Hart, 2015) diets in this and surrounding areas during the seventeenth-century AD and after.

Freshwater bodies may harbor ancient carbon, eroded from bedrock and unconsolidated sediments and soils, which is metabolized and incorporated into fish tissues and the tissues of fish consumers (e.g., Keaveney & Reimer, 2012; Hart, Taché & Lovis, 2018). As a result, radiocarbon ages on the bones of fish and fish consumers may be significantly older than the actual ages of the bones. Such freshwater reservoir offsets (FRO) have been documented on human bone in regions where freshwater fish were consumed by comparing dates on human bone to dates on the bone of terrestrial herbivores and plant remains from a given archaeological site or site component—so-called contextual dates (e.g., Schulting et al., 2014; Lillie et al., 2016). FROs may also be present in radiocarbon dates on charred cooking residues adhering to pottery that incorporate carbon from fish (Heron & Craig, 2015).

Given that dogs in ethnohistorically recorded seventeenth-century AD lower Great Lakes Iroquoian villages and towns were scavengers and were also fed leftover food prepared for human consumption (Heidenreich, 1971), and that there is ample evidence for human consumption of freshwater fish in the ethnohistorical record and at Iroquoian archaeological sites dating to earlier centuries, it is likely that freshwater fish were components of dog diets. Here we examine stable carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) isotope values using Bayesian dietary mixing models to test the hypothesis that dog diets at mid-fifteenth to mid-sixteenth-century AD Iroquoian villages at the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River included substantial amounts of fish.

There are 65 documented Iroquoian archaeological village and related sites south of the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River and east of Lake Ontario in present-day northern New York (Fig. 1). A recent program of radiocarbon dating maize (Zea mays ssp. mays) kernels and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) bone from 18 of these sites and Bayesian modeling of the resulting 43 14C ages suggests that the total occupation span was less than 100 years, from the mid fifteenth-century AD to the mid-sixteenth-century AD (Abel, Vavrasek & Hart, in press). Given the large number of village components it is likely that each village was occupied for a short period of time and not reoccupied. Changes in pollen and charcoal records from an area lake core demonstrate anthropogenic impacts to the region from land clearance during this time span. This was followed by a period of recovery after abandonment of the area by Iroquoians and before the onset of historical land clearance beginning in the nineteenth century AD (Brown, 2002). There is little evidence for human occupations of the area immediately prior to the Iroquoian occupations, the last well-defined occupations occurring several hundred years earlier (Abel & Fuerst, 1999). These various lines of evidence suggest that materials recovered from each of the Iroquoian sites relate to a one- or two-decade occupation.

 Locations of Iroquoian sites at the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River USA.

Figure 1: Locations of Iroquoian sites at the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River USA.

Large labeled dots are sites with radiocarbon dated dog bone.

After modeling dog diets, we next determine if radiocarbon dates on dog bones result in FROs. We do this by comparing 14C ages on dog bone collagen with contextual 14C ages on white-tailed deer bone collagen or maize kernels from the same sites. We then discuss the likelihood that radiocarbon dates on human tissue (collagen) will have significant FROs.

Materials & Methods

Samples of dog and deer bone included in this analysis are from collections obtained by the New York State Museum in the early twentieth century. With the exception of the St. Lawrence site samples, which are identified as all having come from the same pit feature by the excavator, these collections generally lack other than site-level provenance data. However, the samples used from each site were obtained from a specific collector increasing confidence that they came from the same site deposits. There is no evidence for use of consolidants on any of the bone. For Durfee and Pine Hill the dates available for comparison with those on dog bone were on maize kernels. For Durfee there is only site-level provenance data, while for Pine Hill, both maize samples are documented as having come from the same pit feature.

Dog and deer bone fragments were submitted to the W. M. Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory of the University of California, Irvine (KCCAMS). These were first decalcified with 0.5N HCl, then gelatinized at 60 °C and pH 2, and finally ultrafiltered to obtain molecular weight fractions >30 kDa (Beaumont et al., 2010). Ultrafiltered collagen aliquots were measured to a precision of <0.2‰ for δ15N (traceable to AIR) and <0.1‰ for δ13C (traceable to PDB). Maize samples were submitted to KCCAMS or the University of Georgia Center for Applied Isotope Studies (CAIS) where they received standard acid–base-acid pretreatments prior to combustion. All maize δ13C values were measured to a precision of <0.1‰ relative to standards traceable to PDB both facilities on pretreated aliquots. Maize samples were measured to a precision of <0.2‰ for δ15N (traceable to AIR) at KCCAMS. AMS dates were corrected for isotopic fractionation and reported according to established conventions (Stuiver & Polach, 1977). Each facility’s website can be visited for additional information on their respective protocols (https://sites.uci.edu/keckams/protocols/; http://cais.uga.edu/).

Bayesian two tracer dietary mixing models were run in MixSIAR v 3.1.10 (Stock et al., 2018; Stock & Semmens, 2016) using δ13C and δ15N values on bone and maize. MixSIAR uses a Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) simulation to model the proportions of sources in a consumer’s diet based on the stable isotope values of the consumer and its food. Additionally, MixSIAR incorporates the uncertainty in the trophic enrichment factor between the food sources and the consumer in the model. Data for prey (source) animal species were obtained from Booth (2014), Guiry et al. (2016), Morris (2015), Morris et al. (2016) and Pfeiffer et al. (2016). Bone reported from these sources span approximately AD 900–1,600 with 6 of 44 samples reported in Guiry et al. (2016) dating to the historical era. Although adequate samples of terrestrial and aquatic prey species are not available from northern New York, statistical tests (see below) comparing dog and deer data from northern New York to that from southern Ontario show no statistically significant differences supporting their use for the source groups. Additionally, the fish data derive from the same main watersheds, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, that would have been utilized by peoples in northern New York. Assayed fish bone is from archaeological sites bordering the north shore of Lake Ontario and its tributaries in southern Ontario and the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, with the exception 7 of 91 samples reported by Pfeiffer et al. (2016) that are from more northerly southern Ontario sites. Given that the northern New York sites border Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, the isotope values reported for the Ontario sites are reasonable proxies for the current analyses.

The diversity of potential food sources was placed into seven sources in the mixing models. Additional models using the same seven sources as well as models using only three sources were performed for individual dogs (Table S1). The seven-source model was our preferred model as it provided the fewest total sources while taking into account taxonomy, ecology, differences in body size (e.g., small, large), and statistically significant differences in stable isotope values. For example, fish isotope values were first compared based on their ecological groupings as in Pfeiffer et al. (2016), and ultimately split into three separate sources based on statistically significant differences among taxa in δ15N values. Black bear and white-tailed deer were combined into one source as there were no statistically significant differences between those species in either δ15N or δ13C values. Sources for the seven source models include: (1) maize, (2) high δ15N fish, (3) medium δ15N fish, (4) low δ15N fish, (5) bear (Ursus spp.) and deer (Odocoileus virginianus), (6) small herbivorous mammals, and (7) turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), while the sources in the three source models were (1) maize, (2) deer, and (3) all fish (Supplemental Data S1). Stable isotope values for C3 plants were not included in the models as we have no isotopic data for archaeological C3 plants and using modern data would likely fall among and not be distinguishable from the “small herbivorous mammals” group. Collagen to collagen source (prey) to consumer (dogs) trophic enrichment factors (TEF) for δ13C (+1.1‰ ± 0.2‰) and δ15N (+3.8‰ ± 1.1‰) were derived from Bocherens et al. (2015), which is calculated from an average of studies on different taxa as there is not a specific TEF calculated for these archaeological dogs. The maize (source) to consumer (dogs) TEF was +5.0‰  ± 0.1‰ for δ13C, and +3.0‰  ± 0.1‰ for δ15N (Ambrose et al., 1997). All Bayesian mixing models met criteria of the Gelman–Rubin and Geweke tests and are reported in percent credible intervals (posterior probabilities).

All radiocarbon date calibrations, tests for significant differences between dates, and Bayesian modeling of radiocarbon dates were done in OxCal 4.3 (Bronk Ramsey, 2009a; Bronk Ramsey, 2009b). Calibrations and modeling used the IntCal13 Northern Hemisphere terrestrial calibration dataset (Reimer et al., 2013). No artifacts manufactured from European materials have been found on any of the sites in question relating to the Iroquoian occupations, which indicates the sites were occupied prior to widespread adoption of European materials in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century AD (Loewen & Chapdelaine, 2016; Manning et al., 2018). However, because there is a plateau in the calibration curve affecting calibrations in the sixteenth-century AD, modeled dates are multimodal and may extend well into the seventeenth century AD. To correct for this problem, a terminus ante quem (TAQ) of AD 1,600 ± 10 was used in modeling. The CQL run file for each model is presented in Supplemental Code S1.

Following Keaveney & Reimer (2012:1210), FROs were calculated by subtracting uncalibrated dog bone 14C ages from those on deer bone or maize, and FRO standard deviations were calculated through propagation of errors ( σ 2dog+ σ2context). In cases where there were multiple dates on either deer bone or maize from a given site, they were combined with the OxCal R_Combine();in each case the dates were not significantly different at the 95% level of confidence, and their weighted mean was used in FRO calculations (Ward & Wilson, 1978).


δ13C and δ15N values for dogs in our sample, dogs from southern Ontario sites, and seven-source model source groups are presented in Fig. 2. As is evident the isotope values for dogs from New York plot among those for dogs from southern Ontario. Mann–Whitney U tests indicate no statistical difference between New York (n = 10) and southern Ontario (n = 24) dog isotope values: permutation p = 0.544 for δ13C and 0.681 for δ15N. Mann–Whitney U tests also indicate no statistical difference between New York (n = 8) and a random sample of southern Ontario deer values (n = 20): permutation p = 0.478 for δ13C and 0.892 for δ15N. These results suggest use of isotopes from southern Ontario in the Bayesian mixing models for potential prey sources is warranted.

Scatter plot of δ13C and δ15N values for dogs and prey groups used in the seven source Bayesian dietary mixing model.

Figure 2: Scatter plot of δ13C and δ15N values for dogs and prey groups used in the seven source Bayesian dietary mixing model.

Results of the Bayesian dietary mixing modeling for the dogs as a group are presented in Table 1. The sum of mean values for fish for the seven-source model is 0.250, while maize is 0.475, and the sum of remaining terrestrial resource means is 0.275. Dietary mixing modeling results for individual dogs are presented in Table S1. Sums of mean values for fish in the seven-source models for individual dogs range from 0.228 to 0.444. Given these results, it is evident that we can reject the null hypothesis that freshwater fish were not an important component of dog diets.

Table 1:
Bayesian dietary mixing model results for all dogs as a group.
Mean SD 2.5% 5% 25% 50% 75% 95% 97.5%
Table 1A
Seven source model
Bear and deer 0.097 0.069 0.005 0.009 0.040 0.084 0.142 0.227 0.254
Maize 0.475 0.025 0.425 0.433 0.459 0.475 0.492 0.513 0.521
High δ15N fish 0.076 0.051 0.004 0.007 0.035 0.070 0.110 0.170 0.192
Low δ15N fish 0.088 0.072 0.001 0.003 0.031 0.071 0.130 0.222 0.264
Medium δ15N fish 0.086 0.063 0.005 0.009 0.034 0.073 0.123 0.208 0.239
Small mammal herbivores 0.081 0.055 0.004 0.007 0.036 0.073 0.117 0.184 0.203
Turkey 0.098 0.075 0.005 0.008 0.037 0.082 0.143 0.242 0.275
Table 1B
Three-source model
Maize 0.481 0.040 0.400 0.416 0.456 0.480 0.506 0.545 0.532
Deer 0.314 0.078 0.160 0.180 0.263 0.316 0.366 0.441 0.464
Fish 0.205 0.075 0.058 0.084 0.154 0.204 0.256 0.331 0.355
DOI: 10.7717/peerj.7174/table-1

Results of radiocarbon assays on dog and contextual deer bone and maize are presented in Table 2 by site. C/N ratios for all bone samples are within the acceptable range for radiocarbon dating and isotopic assay (Ambrose et al., 1997; Beaumont et al., 2010; Van Klinken, 1999). The 14C ages on dog bone collagen are consistently older than those on the context materials (Table 3). Tests of sample significance (Ward & Wilson, 1978) between 14C ages on dog bone and 14C ages on deer bone or maize were performed with the R_Combine (); command in OxCal. In each case the T-value exceeds the 0.05 χ2 critical value (3.84) for one-degree of freedom (Table 3), indicating the dog 14C ages are significantly older than those of deer bone or maize. Calculations of offsets for 14C ages on dog bone compared to dates on deer bone or maize are presented in Table 3. The offsets range from 97 ± 24 to 220 ± 39 14Cyr with a weighted mean of 132 ± 8. Schulting et al. (2014) found a significant linear relationship between δ15N values and offsets between human bone and FROs in human bone 14C ages from Lake Baikal, Siberia. A regression of δ15N values on FRO means for our sample resulted in a moderate positive correlation that is not significant (permutation p = 0.180). This may be a result of small sample size or varying dog diets. Given the short occupation span of this geographically restricted area, it seems less likely, but is possible, that it results from localized temporal or spatial differences in fish δ15N values or carbon reservoirs.

Table 2:
Radiocarbon dates used in analyses.
Lab # Site Material δ13C (‰) δ15N (‰) Collagen C/Natomic 14C age (BP)
UCIAMS-199804 Durfee dog bone −9.7 9.9 3.26 460 ± 15
UCIAMS-205978 Durfee maize −9.0 345 ± 15
UGAMS-31486 Durfee maize −10.1 336 ± 22
UGAMS-34185 Durfee maize −10.2 314 ± 22
UCIAMS-199798 Frank dog bone −14.3 8.9 3.28 535 ± 20
UCIAMS-199801 Frank dog bone −13.2 10.0 3.25 580 ± 15
UCIAMS-199802 Frank deer bone −22.9 3.8 3.23 410 ± 15
UCIAMS-199803 Morse dog bone −12.1 9.3 3.42 510 ± 20
UCIAMS-199806 Morse deer bone −22.3 7.5 3.41 410 ± 15
UCIAMS-204718 Morse deer bone −21.0 6.4 3.33 420 ± 25
UCIAMS-204721 Pine Hill dog bone −12.6 8.9 3.21 550 ± 25
UCIAMS-199800 Pine Hill dog bone −10.7 9.8 3.23 490 ± 15
UGAMS-37380 Pine Hill maize −9.2 353 ± 20
UGAMS-37381 Pine Hill maize −9.0 392 ± 20
UCIAMS-199807 Point Salubrious dog bone −14.7 9.0 3.33 515 ± 15
UCIAMS-199805 Point Salubrious deer bone −22.8 5.7 3.22 405 ± 15
UCIAMS-204715 St Lawrence dog bone −12.1 10.6 3.22 610 ± 25
UCIAMS-204717 St Lawrence dog bone −14.5 10.9 3.23 705 ± 30
UCIAMS-204714 St Lawrence deer bone −22.9 5.7 3.23 485 ± 25
UCIAMS-199799 Washburn dog bone −11.5 9.5 3.28 525 ± 15
UCIAMS-204722 Washburn deer bone −22.3 6.2 3.16 415 ± 30
DOI: 10.7717/peerj.7174/table-2
Table 3:
Calculation of freshwater reservoir offsets (FRO) for dog bone dates.
Site Context material Dog bone UCIAMS # Context date Lab# 14CDog 14CContext χ2 Ta FRO
Durfee Maize pooled mean 199804 UCIAMS-205978 UGAMS-31485 UGAMS-31486 460 ± 15 335 ± 11 45.4 125 ± 18
Frank Deer bone 199798 UCIAMS-199802 535 ± 20 410 ± 15 25.1 125 ± 25
Frank Deer bone 199801 UCIAMS-199802 580 ± 15 410 ± 15 64.2 170 ± 21
Morse Deer bone pooled mean 199803 UCIAMS-199806 UCIAMS-204718 510 ± 20 413 ± 13 16.6 97 ± 24
Pine Hill Maize pooled mean 204721 UGAMS-37380 UGAMS-37381 550 ± 25 373 ± 15 37.2 177 ± 29
Pine Hill Maize pooled mean 199800 UGAMS-37380 UGAMS-37381 490 ± 15 373 ± 15 30.4 117 ± 21
Point Salubrious Deer bone 199807 UCIAMS-199805 515 ± 15 405 ± 15 29.6 110 ± 21
St. Lawrence Deer bone 204715 UCIAMS-204714 610 ± 25 485 ± 25 12.5 125 ± 35
St. Lawrence Deer bone 204717 UCIAMS-204714 705 ± 30 485 ± 25 31.9 220 ± 39
Washburn Deer bone 199799 UCIAMS-204722 525 ± 15 415 ± 30 10.7 110 ± 34
DOI: 10.7717/peerj.7174/table-3


df = 1, 0.05 χ2 critical point = 3.84.


Freshwater fish was an important component of prehistoric human diets in many areas of the world as is evident from the recovery of fish bone on archaeological sites (e.g., Hawkins et al., 2019), analysis of lipids recovered from pottery (e.g., Craig et al., 2013), and isotopic analysis of human bone (e.g., Lillie et al., 2016). Analyses of dog bone from prehistoric archaeological sites has demonstrated that fish was also an important component of some dog diets (e.g., Fischer et al., 2007). Given the widely recognized phenomenon of the freshwater reservoir effect on human bone as well as the bone of dogs that were fed fish (e.g., Losey et al., 2018), it is important to consider the potential for FROs on dog bone by assessing the likelihood that dogs on a given site were fed fish in areas with freshwater bodies having the potential for ancient carbon reservoirs in the past.

Here we have demonstrated that dogs at mid-fifteenth to mid-sixteenth-century Iroquoian sites at the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River had diets that included freshwater fish and that radiocarbon dates on dog bone have offsets relative to terrestrial sources. Because the dog diets included substantial amounts of fish that contributed to collagen formation, these offsets are evidently FROs. While the offsets on dog bone are modest compared to those in some areas (e.g., Losey et al., 2018), they are still significant given that dates on deer and maize suggest a short total occupation span for the area, beginning in the fifteenth century AD. If assumed to be accurate the dates on dog bone would extend the Bayesian-modeled occupation span into the fourteenth century AD (Table 4). Our results combined with those of other recent assessments of radiocarbon dates on dog bone (e.g., Losey et al., 2018) indicate analysts should assess the potential for FROs prior to radiocarbon-dating dog bone.

Table 4:
Radiocarbon Bayesian modeling results at 95.4% probability.
Model Start boundary Undated event End boundary Amodel Aoverall
Deer and maize dates 1421–1440 1431–1546 1513–1590 82.5 75.7
Deer, dog, and maize dates 1364–1396 1378–1563 1521–1606 78.6 76.2
DOI: 10.7717/peerj.7174/table-4

While our sample is small and limited to the St. Lawrence River headwaters, the δ13C and δ15N values are not significantly different from those obtained on contemporaneous dog bone from southern Ontario, which suggests similar levels of fish consumption. Published chronological assessments of several Iroquoian ossuaries in southern Ontario are based on one or a few radiocarbon dates on human tissue (e.g., Williamson & Pfeiffer, 2003; Pfeiffer et al., 2017). Given evidence for the importance of fish in human diets from that area, there is a possibility of FROs in radiocarbon dates on human bone and dentine collagen. For example, a 14C age on maize from the Moatfield Ossuary of 620 ± 60 BP contrasts with 14C ages on human bone of 730 ± 40 BP, 810 ± 40 BP, and 910 ± 40 BP (Williamson, Thomas & MacDonald, 2003:82). While the older ages on human tissue may have other explanations, FROs cannot be discounted based on current data; freshwater fish were an important component of the zooarchaeological record at the associated Moatfield village site (Williamson, Thomas & MacDonald, 2003:53–73). The dates on human bone from Moatfield and other Iroquoian ossuaries should be reevaluated in light of our results, as should any radiocarbon dates on dog bone.


Freshwater reservoir offsets in radiocarbon dates on source material incorporating carbon from aquatic resources is a global phenomenon. Research to date in archaeology has focused primarily on fish, human bone, and charred cooking residues adhering to pottery. Less attention has been paid to the bone of other animals who may have consumed fish. Here we have demonstrated that offsets are evident in 14C ages on the bone of 10 dogs from mid-fifteenth- to mid-sixteenth-century AD Iroquoian village sites at the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River, USA. Bayesian dietary mixing models indicate that fish were important components of the dogs’ diets. It is likely, then, that the offsets in the 14C ages on dog bone relative to 14C ages on deer bone or maize kernels, are FROs. Archaeologists pursuing the canine surrogacy approach to assess human diets in North America and elsewhere through isotopic analysis should take the possibility of FROs into account prior to obtaining radiocarbon dates on the analyzed dog bone. Our results also suggest the need to reevaluate radiocarbon dates obtained on human bone in nearby southern Ontario, where the archaeological and ethnohistoric records indicate fish were important components of Iroquoian diets.

Supplemental Information

MixSIAR model results

DOI: 10.7717/peerj.7174/supp-1

Raw Isotopic data used in Bayesian modeling

DOI: 10.7717/peerj.7174/supp-2

OxCal QCL Run Files

DOI: 10.7717/peerj.7174/supp-3