International Journal of Legal Medicine

, Volume 133, Issue 3, pp 935–947 | Cite as

Revealing details of stays abroad by sequential stable isotope analyses along human hair strands

  • Christine LehnEmail author
  • Eva Maria Kalbhenn
  • Andreas Rossmann
  • Matthias Graw
Original Article


Multi-element stable isotope analyses of δ13C, δ15N, δ34S and δ2H values were performed along scalp hair strands to detect isotopic changes resulting from different stays abroad. One hair strand with a hair length of more than 50 cm originated from a German woman, who frequently made long-distance travels of 1 to 4 weeks. The second hair strand with a length of 15 cm was taken from a Japanese woman who went to Germany for a period of some months. Stable isotopic influences due to the stays abroad were clearly reflected in the 5-mm segments along the proximal part of the hair strand; whereas in the more distal parts, the isotopic influences were blurred. This can be regarded as the result of the highly variable intra-individual hair growth rate of single hairs of at least ± 30% compared to the mean growth rate. Consequently, the initial isotope signal obtained by short stays abroad became rapidly attenuated in the more distal parts of the hair strand. Furthermore, decreasing sulphur content associated with higher sulphur isotope values was observed with increasing hair length. The isotope shifts along the scalp hair strand, provoked by dietary changes at new locations, appeared at such points of hair length, which correspond well with the maximum growth rate of single hairs. Consequently, the exact date for any changes coming along with isotopic shifts may be calculated by best approach considering a hair growth value of 1.4 cm per 30 days, instead of the commonly used mean monthly hair growth rate of 1.1 cm. This may be important in forensics, if detailed information about a person’s recent lifetime should be figured out by segmental scalp hair analyses.


Stable isotopes Human scalp hair Sequential analyses Stay abroad Unknown individuals 



We are deeply thankful to the two women who were taking part in our study by donating their hair strands and providing information about the travels they had undertaken.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Legal MedicineUniversity of MunichMunichGermany
  2. 2.Institute of Microbiology, Department of PathobiologyUniversity of Veterinary MedicineViennaAustria
  3. 3.Isolab GmbH, Laboratory for Stable Isotope AnalyticsSchweitenkirchenGermany

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