Beyond isolation: understanding past human-population variability in the Dutch town of Oldenzaal through the origin of its inhabitants and its infrastructural connections

L. M. Kootker*, R. J. van Lanen, B. J. Groenewoudt, E. Altena, R. G.A.M. Panhuysen, E. Jansma, H. Kars, G. R. Davies

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


This study presents a first attempt to assess the mechanisms and potential controls behind past residential mobility through the integration of isotopic data from human inhumations and spatial infrastructural information pertaining to the settlement containing these inhumations. Strontium (87Sr/86Sr) and oxygen (δ18OPDB) isotope data are derived from 200 (post)medieval individuals from the town of Oldenzaal in the present-day Netherlands. Reconstructions of historical route networks show that Oldenzaal was well-connected interregionally throughout the Middle Ages and early-modern times (ca. AD 800–1600). Although the working hypothesis was that in the past a high degree of spatial connectivity of settlements must have been positively related to a highly variable geographical origin of its inhabitants, the isotopic data from Oldenzaal indicate a population characterized by a low variability in terms of their origin. This unexpected result may be caused by (a combination of) various factors, related to (1) biases in the isotopic dataset, (2) interpretative limitations regarding the results of isotopic analyses and (3) the impact of broader socio-cultural factors that cannot be traced through isotopic analyses, such as infrastructural connectivity, socio-economics and political factors. The human oxygen isotope dataset presented here provides a first step towards a δ18OPDB reference dataset, against which future samples can be compared without the need to convert the data. This paper establishes that although in archaeology a biomolecular approach potentially provides a detailed reconstruction of the development of past populations in terms of palaeodemography and geographical/cultural origin, such studies should be performed in a transdisciplinary context in order to increase the understanding of the wider controlling factors of past population change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)755–775
Number of pages21
JournalArchaeological and Anthropological Sciences
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2019


The archaeological excavation was conducted by ADC ArcheoProjecten in collaboration with RAAP Archeologisch Adviesbureau. The excavation and the extensive bioarchaeological investigations were financed by the municipality of Oldenzaal (€300K) and the Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE: special-purpose grant (€1.6M) Regeling specifieke uitkeringen excessieve opgravingskosten conform section 34 of the former Monuments and Historic Buildings Act 1988). Gavin Williams (ADC Archeoprojecten) is thanked for his comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Susan Verdegaal-Warmerdam and her team (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) are thanked for the prompt generation of oxygen isotopic data. EA thanks Risha Smeding, Eileen Vaske and Paul Reusink (Department of Human Genetics, Leiden University Medical Centre) for assistance, and prof. dr. Peter de Knijff (ibid.) for providing facilities. We thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.

FundersFunder number
Cultural Heritage Agency
Leids Universitair Medisch Centrum


    • Archaeology
    • Palaeomobility
    • Route networks
    • Strontium and oxygen isotopes
    • The Netherlands
    • Urban demography


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