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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.
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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