Max Planck Research Group on Plant Foods in Hominin Dietary Ecology

Cynthianne Debono Spiteri Bio    CV    Publications

Cynthianne Debono Spiteri I am a Postdoc researcher in the Plant Foods and Hominin Dietary Ecology Group, led by Dr Amanda Henry. My main research interests lie in palaeodietary reconstructions, particularly during transitory periods, and how these relate to the general health and social dynamics of a community. My research so far has focussed on characterising lipid residues extracted mainly from prehistoric ceramic vessels, using Gas Chromatography (GC), GC-Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS), and GC-combustion-Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (GC-c-IRMS). This type of analysis produces direct evidence for individual vessel use, and therefore provides a good insight into the dietary preferences and cooking techniques of different communities. I am also interested in observing how organic residues decay over time, and in trying to identify specific biomarkers which survive over archaeological timescales, and can therefore be used to identify particular food sources.

I am currently working on two experimental research projects involving taphonomic modifications to the morphology of cooked and uncooked starches, and an analytical experiment based on identifying an optimal approach to accessing the organic fraction of dental calculus.

  1. Starches have been retrieved from various archaeological contexts, including ceramics, lithic surfaces and dental calculus, and their distinctive morphological characteristics have been used to identify the use of different plant types, hence infer palaeodietary preferences. However, it is difficult to distinguish between changes to the starch granules caused by cooking, and decay brought about by taphonomic processes during burial. Changes to the structure of starch granules caused by different cooking techniques have already been done, and we are now focussing on carrying out laboratory controlled degradation experiments, as well as long term starch burial experiments, with the aim of better understanding changes to starch morphology caused by taphonomic processes, and to observe whether or not these can be distinguished from cooked starches.
  2. Dental calculus provides a closed, protective system which enhances the preservation of organic residues, and therefore provides secure evidence for the dietary intake of the individuals studied. Research so far has focused on the analysis of plant microfossils (starches and phytoliths) extracted from dental calculus, while investigations into the bound and unbound organic components are still in their infancy. We aim to apply different extraction and mass spectrometric techniques to optimize the identification of the organic fraction in dental calculus.