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Zooarchaeology is Not Zoology

We’ve been talking a lot about our favorite sponsored fishermen in our recent posts — What a Bag of Fish! and Cold with a Lure in the Water — (One more time for Carson and Grant!), but we think it is time to dig back to our roots. Instead of catching fish, we wanted to discover what it was like to study them (and the history of other such animals) through the unique lens of zooarchaeology!

Now, before we go any further, we should say that zooarchaeology is not zoology, and it is not just archaeology either! We asked our staff zooarchaeologist (with a concentration at University of Florida), environmental archaeologist, and environmental historian (Fewf, that’s a lot of degrees!), Sharlene O’Donnell, (Y’all remember her from our amazing Women of CRM?) to share her insight on what it really means to take the zooarchaeology route!

A Zooarchaeologist’s Journey

“I was introduced to [zooarchaeology] as an undergrad;” says Sharlene, “however, I was originally going to become a veterinarian.” Sharlene has always had a connection to animals since she was a kid. “I grew up on a small family farm in a very rural setting around wildlife with cows and horses, dogs, pigs, and deer. This is just an extension of my life!” When she first had the chance, Sharlene began working with animals, starting off as a vet tech at the ripe young age of 17! (It’s hard enough to take care of yourself at 17, let alone other animals — impressive.) The only problem, “Even though it feels good to help the animals,” Sharlene admits, “it's hard to see them suffer — and I absorbed their suffering like a sponge!” Sharlene knew she had to find a new route for herself. “I wanted to be around animals in a more positive way and study them in a more positive interaction,” says Sharlene.

Gar fish at a Zooarchaeology Lab

So, after years of volunteering at the Florida Forestry Service, a single influential trip to Spain, and a little direction from her professors, Sharlene found her way to zooarchaeology (a combination of her two loves, history and animals!) “I liked learning about other cultures and environments,” in addition to working with animals. “I like to study the negotiation of humans and the environment” — including the animals within that environment, and that’s exactly what Zooarchaeology is all about. Zooarchaeology is “always a negotiation of relationships,” says Sharlene. “I started out as an archaeologist specifically,” and over time, Sharlene broadened her horizons and fields of studies to encompass all of zooarchaeology, history, and environmental archaeology. “And I was like, oh this is a thing!”

It most certainly is a thing! And it is something we are eager to learn more about!

What is Zooarchaeology?

Let’s start with the basics — what exactly is zooarchaeology? We did a little of our own research and found that, according to the official definition provided by the University of Tennessee, zooarchaeology is ‘the study of animal remains recovered from archaeological sites, with the goal of understanding past human life in historic and prehistoric times.’

Animal bones, deer bones, box of bones

“It falls under the subcategory of environmental archaeology,” says Sharlene. “You have all of the scientific fields that pertain to scientific studies of the environment.” (i.e. Botany, geology, hydrology, zoology, biology, conservation biology, anthropology) “All the ‘-ologies,’” Sharlene jokes. The difference is, “We study humans and animals together — their interactions and their relationships through time” Sharlene tells us. “This is studied to understand the relationship between the environment, animal populations, and their histories overtime. Our main goal is anthropological” says Sharlene, “We are not zoologists (as we covered earlier). We are anthropologists first, archeologists second, and zoologists third.”

So how does one study zooarchaeology? Is it just looking at dead animals' bones all day?

A Zooarchaeologist’s Process - Bones and All

Animal bones, teeth, fish bones

Well, first, samples are collected from the site in all phases of excavation. These can be all sorts of things like mammal or bird bones, shells, or even graves for pets! At TerraX, Sharlene tells us, some of the more common things you will find in the southeast typically include things like antlers, teeth, or charred bones. (Hey! We know a little about the stories of teeth.) “The majority of a zooarchaeologist's job is dealing with animal bones,” says Sharlene. “You have to be able to see them touch them and interact with them — just, like… a box of bones,” Sharlene says candidly.

When there are animal-related findings at any kind of site, the smart zooarchaeologist will start by separating them into designated taxonomic classifications based on their species, genus, family, order, and phylum. Is it a mammal, a bird, a reptile maybe? What kind of mammal is it? (Odocoileus virginianus = White Tailed Deer.) What kind of bird is it? (Buteo jamaicensis = Red Tailed Hawk.) Is it a vertebrate or invertebrate? (Invertabrada or Vertabrata.) Sharlene tells us, “You have to know what phylum it is first.” Which is basically a higher level of grouping based on fundamental morphological, developmental, or evolutionarily similarities between organisms. “It’s difficult to get down to it (AKA, get real specific) without an excellent type collection to compare to,” adds Sharlene.

animal bones, taxonomic group, species, family, genus

To begin learning this process of accurately identifying species Sharlene says you will need access to these “Type collections” in order to compare and make an educated assessment. For further explanation, the kind of type collection Sharlene is referring to is simply a collection of a specified kind of animal remains or bones (taxonomic group) which is used to study their anatomy. Sharlene goes on to say “Zooarchaeologists have to learn the anatomy of everything as well as the anatomy of the whole area you are studying. That is how professional training happens. As a zooarchaeologist, you can't focus on one animal.” (That’s a whole lot of animals to learn!) However, Sharlene advises us to “start on things you know.” (AKA, a type collection.)

As an undergrad, Sharlene’s first introduction to zooarchaeology started with invertebrates instead of vertebrates. She started off with shellfish and shell midden, at the University of South Florida – Saint Petersburg (USFSP). “It’s easier to learn with shellfish than with animal bones,” says Sharlene. In her process of identifying, she had to ask herself, “Is it a bivalve (clams/oysters) or a gastropod (snails/slugs)?”

The Zooarch Bible

turtle diagram, turtle bones, the anatomy of a turtle

In addition to type collections, Sharlene refers to what she calls the Zooarchaeology Bible, Zooarchaeology by Elizabeth Reiks and Elizabeth Wing. “This will be your guide for the rest of your career,” says Sharlene. In fact, “we use a lot of guide books,” says Sharlene, pointing to her extensive bookshelf — freshly organized, by the way — behind her. (Sharlene has kindly provided a list of some of her go to references on zooarchaeology below. Take a gander!)

The Lab Analysis

After rifling through our “box of bones,” and referring to our zooarch bible (Praise be to the Elizabeths!), we can then proceed to analyze for specifics such as the animal's age or its literal story! (How did it come to be here? Where did it come from? And how did it die?) “We have to take into consideration the age, the size, and the taphonomy.” (AKA, the condition of the bone and what was done to it.)

fish bone

How on earth do we do this?

Well, we can figure out different aspects about the animal simply through things like scratches and indentations in the bones. Sharlene proposes these questions, “Are there any cut marks or butchering? Was it cut with a stone tool or a metal blade? Who did the butchering? Was it gnawed on by rodents or a dog perhaps? How was it butchered or caught?” Sharlene explains that these are the kinds of questions that will tell us not just about the kinds of animals in the area and their personal history but also about the conditions of the environment and the other animals and humans who may have even inhabited the area! (We can learn all that from just one bone!? That’s pretty dang cool.)

At TerraX, almost all of these questions can be answered in our TerraX lab, where Sharlene will lend her expertise to help identify such things. One way in which a lab can identify such specifics is through radiocarbon dating, which is something that helps zooarchaeologists figure out the time period animal remains came from. “Charred or regular bone as well as burnt wood can be radiocarbon dated,” Sharlene adds.

Another way we can gather further information is through something called stratigraphy, which is basically “looking at the cultural material and estimated time frames through the soil layers,” Sharlene tells us. “Stratigraphy lends itself to understanding time periods and who would have put them there,” Sharlene explains. Cultural preferences relating to humans can even be uncovered and further questions arise. “Were the bones used as tools around the household? Were the animals taken in as pets and buried out of respect, or were they raised for eating and discarded after a feast?” There is even a possibility of ritualistic or sacrificial purposes.

pile of bones

As an example, Sharlene says, “There are many animals some cultures do not eat, such as cows. In India, you don't raise cows to eat them as Americans do.” In America, a cow is looked at from an economic standpoint and used as a means for profit and food, while in India, many people refer to cows as sacred animals to be respected and protected. Sharlene summarizes, “It’s the same animal but completely different archaeologically.” (Fascinating!)

It is important to acknowledge these differences, Sharlene tells us, because it shows us how animals and humans are intertwined in history, culture, and environment and reveals how “our different economic and cultural systems are affected by the animals in our society.”

Why Zooarchaeology Matters to Everyone

And this, Xplorers, leads us to the biggest question we are surely all asking ourselves — Why? Why is all this important to us? Sharlene says zooarcheaology is important for a multitude of reasons. On the most basic of levels, zooarchaeology helps us all understand the full picture. “Zooarchaeology brings in the people when studying animals,” says Sharlene. “The life behavior of animals will lend you the understanding of human location and behavior.” Sharlene spells it out for us: “We are using animals to understand more about people and vice versa!” Histories can be told of culture, economy, and even a people's purpose, all through zooarchaeology! Sharlene put it another way, and we think this sums things up pretty well:Zooarchaeology is just another way in which we explain “why all these animals and inhabitants are here in the first place,” or even, “why culture and people matter!”

sorted bones, diagram of a catfish, catfish bone, catfish skull

On another level, Sharlene says “(Zooarchaeology) shows us that humans are not alone in the grand scheme of history — we aren't the only [living beings sharing the earth]. It clarifies our relationships with animals.” Sharlene reminds us of an obvious but highly overlooked historical fact —“there were other living beings that were surviving and living either with or adjacent to humans.” Although this may seem obvious, animals are not typically considered within our written or even archaeological human history. However, “It’s humbling,” says Sharlene, “to understand all these living species, including humans and animals, that contribute to time and even to ourselves as humans.”

Wow, zooarchaeolgy is starting to makes us feel truly connected to it all!

On a scientific level, “Zooarchaeology is also good (scratch that, it’s GREAT!) for conservation biology,” Sharlene tells us. For example, “Zooarchaeology can show the population of species compared to 1000 years ago” in consideration to “climate change, population loss, habitat loss, and shifting ecosystems.” In fact, Sharlene adds, “I stood out at Western Carolina University (History Dept.) because I knew how to look for archaeological data,” going beyond the zoological examination. “This is something that is unfortunately lost” in the area of historical analog. “It’s not common practice to look at archaeological data (in zoology), which can be a huge problem because zooarchaeology can help make better decisions in conservation practices.”

In her argument on the importance of zooarchaeology, Sharlene lastly clarifies something we think we can all stand behind. As someone who grew up among the animals in the great outdoors, Sharlene leaves us with this, “It's not just about conserving the environment for the environment’s sake, it's about the people too. (Zooarchaeology) can be used to help the environment and people together.” (We are truly in it together.)

All in this Together

Zooarchaeology sounds quite important for many reasons and like a highly interesting career to follow! If you really break it down, it sounds to us like zooarchaeology is simply the study of “our interactions with others and understanding those interactions through time.” — AKA the history of the relationships between every living thing! Which sounds pretty dang cool to us. As Sharlene puts it, “We are just lots of living beings trying to survive. Our actions matter because we are all in it together.”

Thanks Sharlene for showing us the full spectrum of zooarchaeology, bones and all! “If you're interested in animals but also love the history of people,” adds Sharlene, “maybe zooarchaeology is your route.” We couldn't agree more! Be sure to follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn for more insight in all the historical, archeological, or zooarchaeological paths taken to further the cultural preservation of human and animal kind alike!

— The TerraX Team


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