Zooarchaeology Research Paper

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Zooarchaeology is the  subdiscipline  of archaeology that  focuses on the analysis of animal  remains  from archaeological  sites. The term has a less euphonious twin, archaeozoology, which has less currency in English than  it does in other  languages.  While some have  distinguished  among  the  kinds  of  approaches that might be treated under these two terms (Reitz and Wing 1999), research identical in form and content  is published  under both names.

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A thorough history  of zooarchaeological research has yet to be written. It would be a daunting task to do so, since highly relevant literature  in a diverse variety of  languages  extends  well back  into  the  nineteenth century. Zooarchaeology has continued  to be an inherent part of archaeological research for well over a century for a wide variety of reasons: faunal data can help place archaeological sites in time, provide detailed information on  past  human  diets,  provide  detailed knowledge of the environments in which past peoples lived and on human  impacts  on those environments, and, less securely, provide  insights into the nature  of the social organization of the people involved.

Even  though  zooarchaeology has  always been an integral  part  of prehistoric  archaeology, zooarchaeology as a distinct and recognizable subdiscipline extends no further  back than  to about  1970. Prior to that time, most research dealing with animal remains from  archaeological   sites was  conducted   by  people whose primary  training  and  interests  lay outside  of archaeology itself, usually within zoology or paleontology.  The  research  done  by  these  practitioners was frequently  of superb quality  and enduring  value, but was often poorly-integrated with other aspects of the archaeological  research involved.

This situation  began to change in the mid-1960s, as archaeology as a whole began to shed its largely descriptive roots and turned toward more explicitly scientific approaches to the past.  Within  a decade or so, there  came into  existence a set of scientists with intensive training in both biology and archaeology whose research focused on zooarchaeological matters, and who began developing techniques,  methods,  and theory relevant to answering those questions (e.g., Grayson 1984, Klein  and  Cruz-Uribe 1984). Today, most  well-regarded  archaeology  Ph.D.  programs in the USA now include zooarchaeology as part of their training  program.

Compared with other object-based  research realms in archaeology, including lithic and ceramic analysis, zooarchaeology benefits  tremendously from  the fact that  the  units  studied  are  provided  by biology,  and that their biological meaning is never in doubt.  These units  tend  to be of two prime  sorts.  First,  there  are taxonomic units, drawn from the Linneaen system—species, genera, and families, for instance. Second, there are anatomical units—the  separate  parts  of the vertebrate skeleton, for instance, or of the insect exoskeleton.   As  a  result,   while  zooarchaeologists might  argue  over  the  identification of  a  particular specimen,  they  do  not  argue  about  the  meaning  of their classification systems. This is often not the case in lithic or ceramic analysis—as anyone who has worked with European Neanderthal stone tool assemblages or with  ceramic  Poverty  Point  objects  in  southeastern USA can attest.

1.    Vertical Applications

Much  zoological  research  is directed  toward  understanding  change  through time, and  relies heavily on the analysis of data from stratified archaeological  sites or from sites which, if not stratified,  can be arrayed in time. As a result, such research has a strong temporal, or  vertical,  component, and  can  differ  in approach from  zooarchaeological research  that  focuses  on  a particular site or set of sites at a precise point in time, and is thus primarily spatial or horizontal in emphasis. These different  approaches may be driven largely by the  research  problems  that  intrigue  a particular  investigator, but they may also be driven by the kinds of sites available for analysis. Because vertical zooarchaeological   research   tends  to  focus  on  change through time, it often draws more heavily on biological theory  than  do horizontally-oriented analyses, which tend  to depend  more  heavily on less-well developed social theory.  Even  though  this  is the  case, vertical analyses often have horizontal components, horizontal analyses often have vertical components, and either approach can make use of either kind of theory.

In recent years, vertical zooarchaeological research has revolutionized  our understanding of the relationship  between   prehistoric   peoples   and   their   biotic environments. It has done this by showing the impacts that even small-scale societies can have on their faunal landscapes,  and  by showing  that  those  impacts  can force changes in the behavior of the people themselves.

Those impacts can be dramatic.  For instance, it has long been clear that  people  caused  the extinction  of some  11  species  of  large,  flightless  moas  in  New Zealand  within  a  few hundred  years  of the  human colonization  of these  islands  some  1,000 years  ago. While it is not  known  what  combination of human hunting,  habitat  alteration (largely by burning),  and human-introduced predators (rats  and  dogs) caused moa  extinction,   human   activities  were  certainly  to blame (Anderson  1989).

During    the   past   two   decades,   however,   zoo- archaeological  work throughout Polynesia has shown that bird extinctions followed human  arrival in island settings with deadly consistency. While large, flightless birds  were  particularly vulnerable,  smaller,  flighted species were lost in high numbers  as well (Martin and Steadman   1999),  and   over   half   the   species  that comprised the Polynesian avifauna may have been lost after  the initial human  colonization  of these islands. As is the  case with  New Zealand’s  moas,  the  exact causes  of  each  extinction   is  unknown,  but   some combination of human  hunting,  human-induced vegetational change,  and  human-introduced predators was involved (Kirch and Hunt,  (eds.), 1997).

Zooarchaeological research has detected impacts of this sort, though  not necessarily of this magnitude, in other  parts  of  the  world  as  well. In  some  of  these places, the branch  of evolutionary ecology known  as foraging theory has been used to understand not only why particular species declined  in abundance under conditions  of human predation, but also the impact of such declines on the people who caused them.

Among other things, foraging theory is designed to answer two apparently simple questions.  First,  given that   resources  are  not  often  distributed  randomly across  the  landscape  but  are  instead  clumped  into patches  (like ducks at oases), which of those patches will a predator chose to visit and how long should  it stay there? Second, given that  multiple prey types, or species, exist in a given patch,  which  of these  prey types should a predator bother  to pursue upon encountering it? The  former  issues are  treated  with what is called the patch-choice  model, the latter  with what is called the prey-choice or diet-breadth model, but  combinations of the  two  also  exist (Smith  and Winterhalder 1992, Stephens  and  Krebs  1986). Developed in biology for non-human predators, foraging theory  has  seen  wide  application in  contemporary human contexts, with impressive successes (Smith and Winterhalder 2000).

In recent years, it has begun to be applied to archaeological   contexts  as  well.  These  applications have  assumed  that  human  prey  choice  is driven  by energy returns,  and that up to a point, larger animals provide higher returns than smaller ones. From this, it follows that vertical analyses of archaeological  faunal assemblages should  show that  these animals  face the steepest decline in the face of human predation. Zooarchaeological research  has  shown  that  they do just that.

In  the  San  Francisco  Bay area  of California, for instance, Broughton (1999) has shown that such large bodied animals as deer formed an ever-decreasing part of human  diets between  2,600 and  2,000 years  ago, while such  smaller  and  more  costly  animals  as  sea otters   became  increasingly  important.  After  2,000 years  ago,  this  pattern changed,  and  deer  began  to become more common  in the diet—but  only because sea otters  themselves had  become  rarer,  and  it now paid to go further  afield to hunt deer. As all this was happening, sturgeon,  the largest fish available  in the area,  not  only declined  in abundance  through  time, but  even  declined  in  size.  All  this  is  predicted  by biological theory under conditions of heavy predation.

In  fact,  it seems that  wherever  zooarchaeologists look  for such effects, and  have access to sufficiently fine-grained  data,  they find them.  The moas provide another  example. It has been realized for many years that  after moas became extinct, human  diets in New Zealand   became  dominated by  small  prey  species, including fish and shellfish. Recently, Nagaoka (2000) has used foraging theory to provide the details of this process.

Foraging  theory  predicts  that,  as prey  items  that provide  high energy returns  decrease  in abundance, the number of species included in the diet may increase in response to the resultant energetic shortfall.  Using data  from the Shag Mouth  archaeological  site on the east coast of New Zealand’s  South  Island,  Nagaoka has shown that,  as the abundance of moas decreased through time here, not  only did higher cost, smaller vertebrates become more important in the diet, but the number  of species included  in the  diet  increased  as well. She  has  also  shown  that  as  moa  populations dwindled, the places people went to procure food changed substantially. As time went on, for instance, people began to bring only the meatiest parts of moas back to Shag Mouth, suggesting that  they had to go further   and  further   to  hunt   those  moas  that   still existed. In addition, during the earliest occupations of the site, most prey species came from either inland or coastal settings. Only late in the history of the site did people begin to exploit offshore resources, mainly barracuda, heavily,  and  this  only  after  the  human activities  had  caused  depletion  of larger  vertebrates available nearer-by.  All this occurred  within a period of less 200 years,  between  about  AD  1300 and  AD 1500.

Zooarchaeologists have  thus  shown  some  of  the kinds  of impacts  that  even small-scale  societies can have on the faunal  landscape,  and  the influence that those  impacts  can in turn  have on the people  them- selves. These kinds of theory-driven studies are fairly new. More traditional are zooarchaeological analyses that   show  the  influence   that   ‘natural’   (i.e.,  non- anthropogenic) environmental changes  can  have  on human adaptations, but these make far heavier use of, and  greater  contributions to,  biological  theory  than they did in even the fairly recent past.

For instance, the site of Grotte XVI in southwestern France  contains  a  series of  archaeological   deposits that  date  to  between  36,000 and  12,000 years  ago. Zooarchaeological  analyses   of  the  large  mammal bones from these deposits showed that the percentage of  reindeer   that   people  hunted   increased   steadily through time, from 47 percent of all the large mammals at  about   36,000 years  ago,  to  94 percent  of  those mammals  at about  12,000 years ago. Comparing the dated  archaeological   record  at  Grotte XVI  with  a reconstructed summer temperature curve for southern France  demonstrates that each of these increases was associated   with  a  decrease  in  summer  temperature (Grayson  et al. 2001), culminating  in a human  diet whose large mammal  component was almost entirely reindeer.  Biogeographic  theory  shows that  the challenges posed  to  mammals  by temperature extremes, either  hot  or  cold,  can  lead  to  mammalian  com- munities  that  are  dominated by a small  number  of species, and Grotte XVI, as well as other  sites, show this process in operation through time.

Thus, vertical zooarchaeological analyses have be- gun to show the complexities of human  relationships with  their  faunal  landscapes.  In  some  cases, people caused  the abundances of the species on which they preyed to decline dramatically, and  both  people and prey paid the price. In others,  people were forced to react  to environmental changes  for which they were not responsible,  and the results can be readily seen in their diets, and probably  in other aspects of their lives as well.

2.    Horizontal Applications

Horizontal approaches to  zooarchaeology focus  on fine-scale analyses of faunal material across space within, and occasionally  between, sites, though  other aspects of faunal  data  play a role here as well. These distributions are usually used to test hypotheses about social organization, hunting patterns, or other aspects of past  human  behavior,  or to infer aspects  of such behavior  from the distributions themselves.

Ongoing   work   at   the   ca.  12,500  year-old   site of Verberie, located in the Oise River Valley north  of Paris,  provides  a simple yet compelling  example  of such an analysis. Unlike Grotte XVI, which is a cave, Verberie is an open-air site consisting of a series of thin depositional layers, each of which represents a distinct occupation of short duration. These occupations vary in  extent  from  45  to  250  square  meters,  and  are marked  by stone-lined fireplaces, around which stone artifacts are concentrated. The site is also quite rich in well-preserved bone, most of which is of reindeer (Audouze et al. 1981, Audouze and Enloe 1997, Enloe and  Audouze  1997). The  Verberie  bones  are  distributed  across  each occupational layer,  but  many  are found  concentrated around relatively bone  free, circular zones. These concentrations tend to be marked by  parts  of  the  reindeer  skeleton  that  do  not  have much meat associated  with them in the living animal, suggesting   that   they   had   been   left  behind   after butchering   and   removal   of  the  meatier   parts.   In addition, these concentrations are located several meters  from  the  hearths,  which  are  in turn  located several meters from  one another. Taken  as a whole, however, the occupation floors at Verberie contain all parts of the caribou  skeleton. Since reindeer are large animals that are not likely to have been transported far when whole, the Verberie occupations would appear to represent  hunting  camps.

One of the most  powerful  tools  zooarchaeologists have available for studying social organization is provided by what is known as refitting. There are two sorts of bone refitting, the first of which involves reassembling broken  bones. Refits of this sort can tell us  about  the  stratigraphic integrity  of  a  site,  since fragments  of the same bone found  in different  strata demonstrate that  specimens have moved up or down the deposits. They can also provide much more precise information as to the nature  of the faunal assemblage as a whole, since small shaft fragments often cannot be identified to species on their own, but can be identified once reassembled (e.g., Marean and Frey 1997, Marean and Kim 1998).

In the second approach, developed by Enloe (1991), detailed measurements  and morphological comparisons allow bones that are highly likely to have come from  the  same  individual  animal  to  be refit  to  one another. If such refit body parts are found on spatially disparate  parts of an undisturbed occupation surface, they have the potential  of telling us about  such things as food-sharing and other aspects of past social organization.

Bone refitting of this second sort done by Enloe at Verberie  shows  that  bones  belonging  to  the  same animal either did not travel very far from the areas in which  they  are  concentrated (and  at  which  initial butchering  apparently occurred),  or, if they did, travelled   to,   but   not   between,   the   hearths.   This situation   is  quite  different  from  that  found  at  the roughly  contemporaneous site of Pincevent,  located not  far  from  Verberie.  Here,  bones  traveled  from hearth  to hearth,  suggesting food sharing  among  the people  using  those  hearths   (Enloe  1991).  All  this, along with a wealth of other  evidence from  the site, suggests that  Verberie,  unlike Pincevent,  served as a briefly-occupied  hunting  camp—a  place from  which hunting was conducted  and to which the results of the hunt  were  brought for  processing.  Enloe  was  also able to  use tooth  eruption  data  to  show  that  in all likelihood the Verberie reindeer had been killed during the Fall, and thus presumably  during migration.

The work done at Verberie provides  a remarkably detailed view of what happened at this particular place at  about  12,500 years  ago.  Small  groups  of  people came here to hunt  reindeer  during  autumn. Hearths were  constructed and  stone  tools  fashioned  or  refashioned around those hearths;  animals were hunted nearby,  then brought back to be butchered,  with the meat transported elsewhere.

Not    all   horizontal   archaeology    is   as   firmlygrounded at that which has been done at Verberie and Pincevent.   A  good   deal  of  it,  in  fact,   is  hardly compelling   at   all,   consisting   largely   of   poorlycontrolled  assertions  about  the  behavioral  meaning of  a  particular  set  of  faunal   material.   However, when  horizontal zooarchaeology is well-done,  as at Verberie and Pincevent, the degree of detail it can provide  about  ancient  human  behavior  can be close to astonishing.

3.    Taphonomy

The  differences  between  vertical  and  horizontal approaches  to  zooarchaeology are  often  differences  in degree,  not  kind.  Multiple  horizontal analyses  at  a single stratified site can be combined to look at change through time, and many vertical analyses examine the distribution of specimens across space as well.

Both  approaches require  that  we understand the nonhuman factors that may have impacted the faunal material that is under study. Carnivores,  for instance, can introduce bones into sites occupied by people, and can  modify  both  the  condition  and  the  location  of bones  deposited   by  people.  Specimens  can  be  destroyed by a roof-fall in a cave, or by chemical action anywhere; they can be moved by water,  trampled  by large animals  (including  people),  attacked  by roots, and  in general  be affected  by a  depressingly  broad variety of processes that  can dramatically transform the assemblage that was originally deposited. Because of this, the area known as taphonomy, the study of the processes that  intervene  between the time an animal dies and scientists study what is left of it in the lab, has become extremely important in zooarchaeology (Lyman 1994). Most zooarchaeologists are proficient at conducting  taphonomic analyses. Without  such analyses,  there  can be a high risk of interpreting as archaeologically meaningful  patterns  that  have been produced  in other ways.

In short,  the thriving  subdiscipline  of zooarchaeology  provides us with information that can be acquired  in no other  way on human  diet, on human interactions with the environment, on those environments  themselves, and on a surprising  variety of past human behaviors that are themselves invisible but that leave faunal residues from which they can now at times be fairly confidently  inferred.


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