... or analysis of animal bone found in archaeological sites. A sub-discipline of zooarchaeology and a rather obscure field of archaeology.

(And kinja is messing with my formatting, which is why the different fonts, and a pic that won’t load)

The main page had an article today about a misidentified skeleton of a bobcat found in a pre-Columbian (pre Columbus) site, and I had a few comments to make about that, seeing as how that was once upon a time, the discipline I was heading into. artiofab has pointed out that it was actually decades between when the skeleton was found, and when it was identified, and it’s very common for material to sit for years until a qualified analyst sees it, so it’s not entirely unreasonable that it’s only now been identified as bobcat.

In any case I thought a post about faunal archaeo-osteology might be in order, and although it’s been several decades since I left the field ;), I’m sure the basic principles will be the same. I’ll use the lab I trained in as an example; I assume most faunal labs are similar.

The lab itself was supplied with a library of complete, dis-articulated animal skeletons of varying ages, so each species was represented by individual skeletons at different stages of development; juvenile, adolescent, sub-adult and adult. And male and female of course. Skeletons were arranged by taxonomy; mammals in one area, subdivided by genus, species, etc. This the Peabody Lab at Harvard (not my lab);


We relied mostly on road kill, and students were required as part of the course work, to prepare at least one skeleton for the lab. Lunches were kept in one refridgerator, and specimens, which might have been collected years before, were stored in a separate freezer. I chose to dissect a long dead duck. Prep included gross (in all senses of the word) removal of soft tissue, then boiling to remove the last of it. Some evil genius prompted my mother to cook stewed chicken that week. Long bones were drilled, and nasty, carcinogenic chemicals were syringed through the cavity to remove remaining fat. Lastly, the bones were bleached.

Archaeologists would sent an analyst all of the bone recovered from a site, with detailed information on the location; the catalogue number would generally be in ink on the item, and maps may or may not be provided; sometimes it would be up to the analyst to make a general map. This is the kind of thing we’d get;


Lots of fairly small bone fragments that we would compare with the library of specimens in the lab. You get a feel for what you’re looking for after a while; some obvious things would be that bird bones are much lighter and thinner than animal bones. Juvenile bones may have a spongy texture at the ends of the long bones, and so on. So we’d have a tiny corner of a bone, with bit of whorl, or torque to it, and we’d think “hmm; looks a bit like deer, but too big. Lets look at the elk”

We could determine what time of year the site was occupied; lots of very young juvenile bone indicates a spring/summer occupation. Was it occupied year round? What was the rough number of people at the site, based on normal meat consumption relative to what’s found at the site? Were there pets? I mentioned in a comment that I had found a puppy skeleton buried with a child, although I wasn’t responsible for analysis of human remains, it was in the notes, so I was aware of that.

Other things we’d see were evidence of extinct, or extirpated species, extirpated meaning no longer found in that area, and also evidence that some invasive species may be there earlier than originally thought.


Fascinating stuff, and there are obviously not enough faunal analysts out there, if an important site like the “bobcat site” aren’t being analysed for decades.