What Can Animal Bones Tell Us About Life In the Past?

Animals have been integral to humans in the past and present. In this post, you will find the YouTube video explaining what animal bones can tell us about life in the past and a full video transcript (with relevant references and links).

YouTube Video

YouTube Video Transcript

Here, you will find the complete transcript of the video in the previous section with hyperlinked references/citations.


Mammoths, sheep, cattle, salmon, armadillos. We find all these animals in the archaeological record, but what can their remains actually tell us? Hi, I’m Dr. Smiti Nathan and I’m an archaeologist!

In this video, we’re going to explore how studying ancient animal bones can give us a peek into life in the past. So let’s get into it.


But first, let’s talk about zooarchaeology. The prefix zoo comes from the Greek word for animal, so zooarchaeology is the study of animal remains from archaeological contexts. Most commonly, zooarchaeologists study animal bones or teeth, but antler, shells, and scales can also be useful, as well as microscopic remains like proteins or DNA.

These remains can provide archaeologists with a trove of information. Like how big an animal was when it died, or how old it was, or where it lived.

Some zooarchaeologists specialize in a specific family, genus, or species of an animal, and we’re going to dive a bit deeper into some of those animals today.


Have you ever seen an aurochs? Probably not because they’re extinct. Aurochsen were quite formidable at about 6 feet tall with [00:01:00] enormous horns.

They were native to Western Asia, North Africa, Europe, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean region, and they first evolved as long as 2 million years ago.

About 10,000 years ago, farmers and shepherds across modern-day India, Turkey, and Egypt began to rely on aurochsen for their meat, hides, blood, and milk.

Over thousands of years, the wild aurochsen became an integral part of human agricultural practices and were introduced to other parts of the world. They also became smaller, more docile, and more effective at producing milk. Turns out they’re the wild ancestor for something you’ve probably already seen: cattle.

The differences in bone structure and DNA composition between wild aurochsen and domesticated cattle can be observed in archaeological remains, providing a detailed record of how these animals have changed over time.


Now, for hundreds of thousands of years, humans have relied on fish. In the Northern hemisphere, one of the most important fish species is salmon.

This fish is particularly important to many communities across the [00:02:00] Pacific Northwest and Canada’s western coast.

For example, salmon is crucial to the Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s traditional way of life across the coast of British Columbia in Canada. Archaeologists working with the Tsleil-Waututh Nation on their ancestral lands have recovered salmon bones that are up to 3, 000 years old. They found that as they were living on the Salish coast, they were practicing long-term sustainable fishing practices that still endure to this day.


So far we’ve talked about a land animal and a sea animal, and there’s actually an animal that treads between the land and sea. They’re squishy soft body invertebrates that often live in shells.

These creatures are mollusks, and include clams, oysters, snails, and scallops. Archaeomalacologists specialize in studying shells. There are actually over 100,000 species of mollusks that have been imported to human societies. Shells can be surprisingly resilient and can preserve for long periods of time. For example, archaeologists working across Japan recovered multiple ancient deposits of discarded shells that are up to 16, 000 years [00:03:00] old.

Shells can also be radiocarbon-dated, making them a useful tool to figure out how old a site can be, and this is a common method that’s used in North America, especially in coastal sites.


So far, we’ve talked about cattle, fish, and mollusks, animals whose importance to humans seem pretty clear. But what about armadillos?

Well, it turns out these roly-poly critters are sensitive to climate. They prefer to live in warmer climates, and they don’t do well in the cold. In Argentina, archaeologists recovered armadillo carapaces from multiple sites dating from about 1,000 to 200 years ago. They found that during a period of higher-than-average temperatures and rainfall in the medieval period, armadillos were more abundant.

 They found the reverse during the Little Ice Age of the 16th and 15th centuries when the presence of armadillo remains declined. In this case, armadillos served as an important proxy in learning about past environmental conditions.

Working Together

While some zooarchaeologists focus on specific animals, there are zooarchaeologists who are trained to identify and analyze a wide array [00:04:00] of species.

In fact, when I took zooarchaeology as a graduate student, I had to learn about horses, sheeps, goats, birds, pigs, and fish. This is because we usually find different types of animal bones at sites, and it’s really useful to study these bones in relation to one another.

Animal bones can tell us about food practices and diet in the past. They not only tell us what animal genus or species could have been at a site, but the bones house other important information as well.

When people kill and butcher an animal, such as a mammoth, they typically use tools, and these tools leave distinctive marks on bones. Archaeologists can figure out what kind of hunting technology people use based on butchering and tool marks, such as metal blades, stone axes, bamboo knives, or bows and arrows. Some of the most ancient evidence we have of hunting comes from signs of butchering.

For example, take a look at these cut marks on a 1. 5 million year old antelope leg bone found at a site in northwest Kenya. Butcher marks on bones can also show which parts of the animal people like to eat. For example, [00:05:00] sometimes archaeologists find smashed bones which suggest that ancient people sought nutrient dense bone marrow.


In some cases, animal bones can tell us about food traditions and how they change over time. As you may remember from a past video on what do plants have to do with archaeology, food and culture are super closely linked. In 15th century Florida, indigenous communities like the Guale, mostly ate wild animals like deer, turkey, and fish.

When the Spanish colonized the region in the 16th and 17th centuries, they brought domesticated animals like pigs, chicken, and cattle.

Archaeologists working in St. Augustine found that over the course of the 1600s and 1700s, native folks in this area slowly incorporated these introduced species into their diets.

Food and diet, including the consumption of certain animals, can tell us a lot about people’s social and ethnic identities in the past.

 For example, kosher and halal law requires that animals be killed in a very specific way, and this leaves very specific marks on the bones.

Archaeologists working at two 14th century sites in northeastern Spain analyzed [00:06:00] butcher marks on the bones of sheep, goats, and cattle. Based on the marks on the bones as well as other artifacts like a menorah, they found that the Jewish communities abided by their strict dietary laws even while they were surrounded by hostile Christian communities.


Animal remains may also reveal how humans altered the environment throughout history.

For example, a team of archaeologists working in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador used data from 23 classic Maya sites to identify over 90 different animal species. These included deer, turtles, monkeys, toads, snakes, and hawks, just to name a few.

 Using the significant dataset, researchers were able to trace how forest health changed over time across the Maya Empire.


Now, many archaeologists who study animals also work closely with archeologists studying plants and insects, as we often have similar research questions.

For example, a team working at a rural Middle Ages site in the Sicilian countryside analyzed wood charcoal, charred fruits, and charred seeds alongside sheep, goat, donkey, [00:07:00] horse, deer, and boar teeth and bones.

They found that despite the social upheaval that took place between the 8th and 11th centuries at this site, farming and animal husbandry practices continued quite stably.


As we can see, animal bones can tell us a lot about life in the past. Now, if you’re interested in learning more about what plants and insects can tell us about the past, check out these videos here. Thanks so much for joining us, and we’ll catch you in the next one. Bye!


Anya Gruber: Co-Producer, Researcher, Scriptwriter

Noor Hanania: Lead Video Editor

Smiti Nathan: Director, Co-Producer, Support Video Editor

Pam Crabtree lent her zooarchaeological expertise to fact-check a previous version of this script.

If you enjoyed this post, check out my channel and other videos.

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.



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