Understanding Human Relationships with Animals and Environmental/Climatic Shifts – Faunal Analysis

Analysis of animal remains preserved on archaeological sites can tell us a lot about humans’ relationship with animals. Faunal analysis, a research device used in Zooarchaeology, can tell us whether an animal was domesticated and died naturally or wild and was killed for meat or its hide. For example, tooth eruption in a deer can tell archaeologists what season a deer may have been killed in and tooth wear can tell how old a deer may be, or markings on fish bone can suggest the catching methods (e.g. spearing, netting, or fish hooks). Faunal analysis can also be helpful in tracking environmental and climatic shifts.

Two sides of a horn fragment. Markings on the bone suggest the incisions were done by humans. (Fig. 1)

So how does faunal analysis work?

With a collection of bones from the same species of animals, either from the same site or from other sites close by, archaeologists can analyze the bones and compare the findings. Wear on the teeth can suggest domestication as domesticated and wild animals have different diets. Anatomical changes in bone structure may be present in domesticated animals as they may not require the same physical structure as their wild counterparts. The distribution of these animal remains can tell us what animals ancient humans were eating and farming. Ancient human involvement with animal bones, either direct or indirect, is often referred to as cultural modification. Cultural modifications can be burn marks, butchery marks, or any sort of modification that relates to bone tools, ornaments, or similar items. These modifications provide great insight into the culture and living style of the settlement, band, or tribe that happened to modify these bones. A great example of these cultural modifications is seen in Fig.1. Marks on a horn fragment suggest human involvement with this animal, however, the incisions happened to go all the way around the bone meaning that it wasn’t simply a butcher’s knife that made these incisions. Reasons for incisions remain unknown but it’s a great example of human modification.

The change in migratory patterns of fish due to climatic shifts (Fig. 2)

In regards to environmental shifts, faunal analysis can also be helpful. Water temperature affects the environment where fish live as certain species migrate to cooler waters for summer and warmer waters for winter. Distribution of fish bones can alert archaeologists where certain species of fish may live. As the waters warm, most warm-water species will spend more time in their summer migration patterns as cold-water species will have to travel farther to find the environment they need to survive, as seen in Fig. 2. Analysis and distribution of these fish bones can indicate ancient migration patterns due to environmental changes and how that affected human settlement.

Faunal analysis is a fascinating topic that’s been a huge aid in archaeological finds. Telling us more about ancient human diets, and environmental changes, and even furthering the knowledge of early agriculture and domestiction, this method of analysis will continue to be one of the greater methods in zooarchaeology and the field of archaeology itself.






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The Insights of Zooarchaeology

Figure 1: Excavation of dog burial. Photo by Del Baston.

            Archaeology has been defined as the study of past societies through the remains of their artifacts (Renfrew and Bahn 2018). While many perceive archaeology as one way of discovery and analysis applied to different ancient societies and cultures, there is actually many specialties within the field that help give insight. One unique example of this is zooarchaeology which is defined as the study of non-human animal remains within the context of past societies and cultures (Painter 2016). Past animal remains can give a lot of insight into the environment that humans lived in and more importantly how they utilized it.

            One interesting study performed by researchers at Binghamton University used the trading of venison to better understand interactions between English Colonists and Native Americans in Virginia’s Potomac River Valley in the late 1600s (Hatch 2012). To begin this investigation, Doctor Hatch performed an excavation at a location referred to as the Hallowes Site. The Hallowes site is located around the delta of the Potomac River on the border of Virginia and Maryland. At this location, Doctor Hatch was able to find artifacts and skeletal remains of deer. Through analysis of the remains, it was found that deer forequarters and hindquarters were found in the highest frequency. One artifact of importance was identified to be a bone awl (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Bone awl recovered at the Hallowes Site. Photo by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

From this evidence and historical records, it was postulated that this location was used for processing the hunted deer for the parts that would be traded to the colonists. This was supported by there being a very high frequency of certain skeletal remains. Also, the identification of Native American tools confirmed that the site was used by the tribes of this area. One question that was created from this investigation was what happened to the rest of the deer that was not left at this location? Archaeologists thought that the heads were kept by the Native Americans due to the importance of the brains for the hide-tanning process. By keeping the parts of the animals that the colonists did not want to buy, the Native Americans were able to use the skin and brain to create leather and produce a product for them to sell and use for themselves. This study represents one aspect of how zooarchaeology can be used to better comprehend a part of the past.

            Zooarchaeology is just one example of the many specialties within archaeology that allows for different perspectives to be seen and ultimately give a clearer image of the past. With the development of new technology and information being learned, the field of archaeology and the specialties within it are constantly growing and improving.

Links of interest:




Hatch, D. Brad. 2012. “Venison Trade and Interaction between English Colonists and.

            Native Americans in Virginia’s Potomac River Valley.” Northeast Historical

            Archaeology 41 (1): 18–49. https://doi.org/10.22191/neha/vol41/iss1/3.

Painter, Autumn. 2016. “Zooarchaeology: The Study of Animal Bones and How It Is

            Done.” MSU Campus Archaeology Program (blog). November 29, 2016.


Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods,

           Practice with 303 Illustrations. Fourth edition. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.