Zooarchaeology is the study of human beings and their relationship to nonhuman animals. Research in this area involves the analysis of animal remains (also called faunal remains or archaeofauna) from archaeological sites, such as bone from amphibians, mammals, reptiles, birds, and fish, and shellfish such as lobster and mollusks.
Animals have probably always played an important role in our biological and cultural development. Evidence from archaeological sites around the world demonstrate that animal resources such as meat, fat, blood, marrow, and other edible parts were nutritionally important. Secondary products—fur, wool, hides, bones, teeth, and shells—provided materials that we used for clothing, shelter, and making tools.
As human populations grew, we became increasingly dependent on animals for companionship, protection, and work-related activities. Animals are well-known from cave paintings, hieroglyphics, and the archaeological record as being critical components in commerce and warfare. As this dependence grew, we domesticated many wild varieties of animals. This changed animals genetically, but, in addition, we selected certain artificial traits to, for example, increase milk or wool production. We also selected some behavioral changes. The wolf is a good case in point, as we consider it the ancestor of today’s domesticated dog. It seems that, over the past 14,000 years, human beings have bred all of the current breeds of dog for a variety of tasks related to our endeavors and our lives.
Zooarchaeologists are interested in analyzing animals to examine
- paleoenvironments and environmental change
- the technologies or techniques that humans use to hunt or capture their prey
- the nutritional values of animals
- the origins of animal domestication
- the development of animal breeds
- how animals fit into the economic, social, and belief systems of ancient societies
- the formation of archaeological sites (taphonomy) and associated archaeofaunal assemblages
Archaeofauna are often ideal for study because their remains can preserve well, even in sites dating back tens of thousands of years. Under special circumstances, bones and other tissues may become mineralized or preserved as fossils that date back millions of years. When investigated by trained archaeologists, these remains can provide vital clues to the past environment and how human beings may have interacted with animals or exploited them.
When faunal remains are discovered, zooarchaeologists usually proceed with identifying the particular animal to species if possible, their frequency within the assemblage, and whether there are some parts of the animal that preserves better than others (called preservation bias). The zooarchaeologist will also want to measure the remains to help identify the animal to gender or taxa and determine if any changes were occurring over time, examine the bones for evidence of butchery, and—using chemical, genetic, or isotopic techniques—to discover evolutionary relationships and dietary preferences. In this way, archaeologists can better understand human-animal relationships over time.
- Grayson, D. K. (1984). Quantitative zooarchaeology: Topics in the analysis of archaeological fauna. Orlando: Academic Press.
- O’Connor, T. (2000). The archaeology of animal bones. College Station: Texas A&M University.
- Reitz, E. J., & Wing, E. S. (1999). Zooarchaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.