Zooarchaeology

 In Canada most zooarchaeologists study teeth, bone and marine shells, because these materials are commonly preserved on archaeological sites. Preservation of specimens depends on what happened to them before burial, the rate at which they were buried, and the burial environment.

Bone Samples
Bison limb elements from the zooarchaeological collection of the Department of Anthropology, UofA (courtesy Department of Anthropology, UofA).
Zooarchaeological Collection
Zooarchaeological collection of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. It is in such laboratories that archaeologists compare faunal remains found during excavations with modern animal skeletons, in order to identify them. This pictures shows canid reference specimens with a wolf on the left and a coyote on the right (courtesy Department of Anthropology, UofA).
Bone sample
A small part of a typical archaeological bone sample. Note that most specimens are broken, and there are many fragments that are difficult to identify (courtesy Jonathan Driver).
Weathering
Weathering is one of the many factors that destroy bones before they can be buried and preserved. The coyote shoulder blade on the right is starting to break up after being exposed to the elements (courtesy Jonathan Driver).
Zooarchaeological Collection
Nicola Howard is identifying a coyote mandible using UofA's reference zooarchaeological collection (courtesy Department of Anthropology, UofA).

Zooarchaeology

Zooarchaeology is the study of animal remains from archaeological sites, and is taught in university departments of archaeology and anthropology in most provinces. Zooarchaeologists are employed as university and college professors, in government and museums, and in consulting companies that specialize in archaeological and environmental research.

In Canada most zooarchaeologists study teeth, bone and marine shells, because these materials are commonly preserved on archaeological sites. Preservation of specimens depends on what happened to them before burial, the rate at which they were buried, and the burial environment. Many processes destroy specimens before they can be buried. For example, dogs scavenge bones, and climatic phenomena, such as wetting and drying, can weather and destroy them. Specimens that become buried can also be destroyed. In Canada there is generally poor preservation of bone and shell in acidic soils formed under coniferous forests, or in shallow sediments, such as those found on exposed prairies. However, good preservation occurs in river silts, slopewash (ie, soil and rock material that has been moved down a slope by gravity assisted by running water), shell middens and cave sites, and zooarchaeological research has been conducted in most parts of the country.

Most archaeological sites in Canada date after the major period of extinctions at the end of the last ice age (see glaciation), so most specimens can be identified by comparing them with collections of modern animal skeletons, housed in universities and museums. Sometimes specimens can be identified to species, but because closely related species have very similar skeletons, many identifications are made to the genus or family level. Some zooarchaeologists analyse ancient DNA to check identifications. Other data recorded include the part of the skeleton (eg, right femur), the portion (eg, proximal end), and any cultural or natural modification (eg, burning, weathering). More specialized information is recorded for a subset of specimens, such as description of the wear on teeth, or measurements that allow male and female to be distinguished.

Zooarchaeological specimens provide information on what people ate in the past. For example, we know that bison were important for 10 000 years on the prairies, and that salmon did not become a staple on the Northwest Coast until about 8000 years ago. Animal remains provide information about changing environments and about human impact on the environment, data that are relevant to modern conservation biology. For example, animal remains from Fur Trade period sites in northeastern BC have shown that passenger pigeons once ranged this far west, and also that the fur traders changed the structure of large mammal populations in the northern Rockies.

In many cultures animals are also important culturally. Food carries important social and symbolic meanings, as do items made from animals, such as bone tools, fur clothing and decorative feathers. The oldest evidence for symbolic behaviour in Canada comes from BC where 10 000 year old Raven burials were excavated. However, ritual use and treatment of animals has been found in many regions, and testifies to the important role that animals played in the consciousness of First Nations people.