Can heavy metals in cremated remains tell where the person lived?

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Paul Anderson

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Paul Anderson  asked the Naked Scientists:
Hi Chris and team,

My previous question about analysis of the cremated remains of a human seems to have become bogged down in discussion of teeth.

If an Indian and a Japanese were cremated, could a scientist tell which pile of ashes had been the Indian (assuming he ate curry) and which was the Japanese (assuming he ate lots of fish and so had some heavy metals in him)?

What do you think?


Offline Bored chemist

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With a bit of luck he could tell rather a lot about the person.
However, the trick would be to look at things like isotope ratios in lead and the amounts of other elements like strontium (or even radium for some places in the world).
Fish contains quite a lot of mercury (at least in some cases) but that mercury wouldn't survive being cremated. As far as I'm aware, there shouldn't be any particular sources of heavy metals in a decent curry.
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Offline RD

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Sorry, more teeth ...

ScienceDaily (Feb. 15, 2008) A 40,000-year-old tooth has provided scientists with the first direct evidence that Neanderthals moved from place to place during their lifetimes. In a collaborative project involving researchers from the Germany, the United Kingdom, and Greece, Professor Michael Richards of the Max Planck institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and Durham University, UK, and his team used laser technology to collect microscopic particles of enamel from the tooth. By analysing strontium isotope ratios in the enamel - strontium is a naturally occurring metal ingested into the body through food and water - the scientists were able to uncover geological information showing where the Neanderthal had been living when the tooth was formed.