Reading human history in the bones of animals

6 min read

Peabody Museum’s lab trains archaeologists

In a Siberian cave Patrick Wrinn found bones: bones of sheep and goats, bones of extinct bison and horses, of mammoths and wooly rhinoceroses.

Wrinn, a doctoral student in archaeology at the University of Arizona and member of the Harvard Class of 1998, is trying to find out who — or what — put the bones there. Was it early humans? If so, was it Neanderthals or early modern humans? If not, was it a cave bear, a cave lion, or any number of small carnivores?

Each possibility would tell a different story about the cave’s use, and, potentially, about the activity of early humans in the area.

Wrinn is on the trail of early humans, but much of what the site can tell him comes from the bones of animals.

Animal bones provide an important archaeological window into early humankind, and their study has become a subfield of archaeology, called zooarchaelogy. Wrinn first learned what animal bones can tell us about humans at a small lab in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

“I got my foundation there in the lab,” Wrinn said. “[Zooarchaeology] is one of the major ways we can understand what’s happening in the sites. In my case, I’m looking at how Neanderthals and modern humans were different. Was it ecological factors [that doomed the Neanderthal] or did modern humans outcompete them?”

The Peabody Zooarchaeology Lab is run by Director Richard Meadow, a senior lecturer on anthropology. The lab is in a small, open room on the museum’s third floor. The space is dominated by a large table. The walls are lined with counters atop racks holding boxes of bones, mostly from modern mammals. Here and there on the counters sit skulls and skeletons, the most conspicuous of which are the large skulls of two water buffalos.

The labels on the boxes are mostly familiar, not surprising given that the collection is intentionally dominated by animals used by humans: sheep and horses, donkeys and deer, pigs and ostriches. On shelves at one end of the room are stacked boxes filled with the bones of smaller animals: dogs and foxes, squirrels and hares, otters and bobcats, birds and fish.

Meadow said the lab has been used by professionals and students working on animal bones from archaeological sites around the world from the Arctic to Peru, Africa to Turkey, France to China. These researchers use the collection of bones from modern domestic and wild animals, together with the complementary collections of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, to help them accurately identify and characterize the archaeological specimens. In addition, Meadow teaches a class in comparative osteology for archaeologists every other year to students interested in learning more about identifying animal bones. Wrinn said he was introduced to the skill of animal bone identification in the class in 1996 and used the skill in preparing his senior honors thesis.

Meadow characterized the “modern comparative collection” as having particular strengths in both domestic and wild animals from New England and from South Asia, where Meadow has done much of his own research. It holds one of the world’s largest collections of water buffalo skeletons, he said.

The collection continues to grow, Meadow said. New specimens are added to provide information on the natural variance in different species: between males and females and young and old and different populations. Animals are added when the opportunity presents itself, Meadow said. Tonya Largy, a research assistant with the lab, prepares specimens in a facility at the Concord Field Station using dermestid beetles to strip the flesh off bones in an early step of preparation of the skeletons. Peter Burns, a curatorial assistant in the lab, prepares the fish using enzymes. The specimens come from other departments at Harvard as well as from other institutions, including state and federal agencies. They can also come from such opportunistic sources as roadkill.

The bones can be particularly useful in distinguishing from morphologically similar species, such as dogs and wolves, sheep and goat, and water buffalo and cattle. A specific identification can provide more information about animal use by humans than a mere generic identification.

The bones are important in the study of human history and prehistory because throughout our time on Earth, humans have used the resources of the world around them, including animals. In later years, that includes domesticated animals, but even in early human history, humans hunted wild animals, ate them, and discarded their bones nearby. The bones can tell us not only what kinds of animals humans hunted, but their abundance and age at death, and, in the changes as different layers are uncovered, the impact of human predation on wild populations.

“One important thing is trying to document the ‘kill-off’ pattern, to understand how humans exploited animal populations,” Meadow said. “[The bones] serve as important proxies for what humans were doing.”

Meadow himself has done a considerable amount of work in Pakistan, where he theorized from the archaeological bone evidence that the native cattle there, the hump-backed zebu, were originally domesticated in South Asia. This conclusion has since been confirmed through DNA analysis.

One former graduate student, Li Liu, today a professor at Latrobe University in Australia, examined water buffalo bones for her Ph.D. dissertation in the zooarchaeology lab. Her subsequent research involved fieldwork in China where she noted that the bones of the water buffalo often found in archaeological sites of the Neolithic and Bronze Age and assumed to be domesticated were different from those of modern domesticated water buffalo.

Liu and colleagues have since accumulated more data supporting the hypothesis that the ancient Chinese buffalo are different from the modern species, which morphologically and genetically are close to South Asian forms. Though the modern Chinese buffalo are similar to those domesticated in South Asia, the nature and age of the spread of domestic water buffalo across South, Southeast, and East Asia promises to provide insights into the nature of human interactions through time in this archaeologically complex region.

Even though modern technology gives scientists powerful tools, such as DNA analysis, with which to understand aspects of modern animal distribution patterns, bones from archaeological sites offer important information about ancient animal distributions and economies, Meadow said. In addition, the archaeological bones provide a source of samples for the study of ancient DNA, which provides direct information about animal breeding and distributions in the past. Further, through the study of bone chemistry, archaeological specimens can provide information about ancient environments, including baselines with which to compare modern environments in the same region.

“As science progresses, the collection becomes a resource for more and different sorts of analyses,” Meadow said. “There are all sorts of ways we can use these collections: They serve as reservoirs of information for the future.”