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Strontium has many applications including glass and ceramics production, cathode ray tubes, paint pigments, pyrotechnics (such as flares and fireworks), radioisotope thermoelectric generators, and some cancer treatments. In nature, strontium exists mainly as the stable isotope 87Sr and as the radioactive isotope 90Sr (from the decay of 87Rb).
Isotopic studies of minerals and rocks have long been an integral part of geochemical research. For example, the isotopic ratios of 87Sr and 86Sr in igneous rocks can be used as tracers to determine the origins of such rocks (see Fullagar and Gogosz, Chemical Geology, 84: 515 (1973)). Because physical processes like weathering do not fractionate Sr isotope values, the 87Sr/86Sr value of water holds the signature of the rock formations that it flowed through, thus providing a useful tool for mapping groundwater contamination.
In addition to its use in tracing the geographic origins of minerals and rock samples, the 87Sr/86Sr of human tooth enamel can also provide information about an individual’s residence history, allowing us to reconstruct past migration patterns. A key example of this is the work of Knudson and colleagues (2005), who demonstrated that a naturally mummified assemblage of individuals from southern Bolivia who were found with Tiwanaku artifacts could be traced to their home area by the 87Sr/86Sr ratios of their teeth. The isotopic data revealed that the individuals had migrated from a region with a different geological chemistry to southern Bolivia at some time in their lifetime.