Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Archaeologists frequently come across bones in the field. Where there are people, there is usually an array of animal remains. Use of the remains varies from food waste to tools or even decorations. Classification of the remains found at sites is important as it can teach us about the population that once lived there. So how does one identify animal remains?

Some bone remains are easier to identify than others. Most modern carnivores can identify chicken bones from seeing them in cooking today. The same can be said of pig or cow ribs. Human and nonhuman mammal bones often have a similar morphology, so having a basic knowledge of your own bones can actually help you ID bones. Take for example this bone.

This bone is a femur, an easily recognizable bone that looks very similar to one you would find in a human. However this femur is obviously much bigger than what would be seen in a human. This femur belongs to a hippo. However compared with a human femur seen below, you can notice the obvious shape similarities.

Knowing what human bones look like can also help to ID nonmammal remains. For example this picture of fish vertebrae, which look some what similar to human vertebrae.

We can easily know that these remains are vertebrae just from common anatomical knowledge of our own bodies.

Other classifications can be applied to animal remains. For example, quadrupeds forelimbs and hindlimbs are roughly the same length. In bipedal humans however our legs are clearly longer than our arms. When dealing with more complete skeletons, this knowledge can be helpful in comparing different bones.
Deer Skeleton

Differences can also be an easy way to identify animal remains. Bird bones for example are very lightweight and hollow. This contrasts greatly to the thick and heavy bones of mammals. The picture below shows a cross section of both these bones for comparison.
Fish bones are delicate, like bird bones however they have some easily identifiable differences. Fish bones can have a translucent appearances to them, while bird bones are glossy, but not translucent. The picture below is a great example of the translucent look fish bones can have.

So why is the identity of animal bones important? Animal bones can tell us about the diet of a population as well as what local resources were being used. Finding fish bones shows that people were utilizing fishing technologies, while finding terrestrial animals suggests other hunting techniques. Animal bones are an important and common part of the archaeological record. Analysis of them is important for archaeologists to understand the people of the past.

Written by, FPAN staff Megan Liebold

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