Bears, Humans and Deer: disambiguation at last.

Human and Bear cuboid bones compared. Source: Smart 2009.

Some graduate theses are clearly meant to be both a research excercise and produce a demonstrably useful document.  I’m not saying these are any better than any other kind of thesis, but they do have an aura of public service and virtue about them.  The best example of these which I have seen recently is Tamela Smart’s 2009  Carpals and tarsals of mule deer, black bear and human: an osteology guide for the archaeologist.  If you click here it will start an automatic download of the 3.7 meg PDF from Western Washington University (unfortunately, no way to link to a download page).  (edit: try this link instead)

The premise of this research is that despite obvious differences on the outside, there are surprising similarities between the hand/wrist and ankle/foot bones (carpals and tarsals) of bears, deer, and humans.

A Schematic of bear, deer and human carpal bones. Source: Smart 2009.

As Smart puts it in her abstract:

Existing osteological literature often lacks descriptions and illustrations of the smaller elements, such as hand and foot bones, of animals commonly found in the archaeological record. Black bear (Ursus americanus) and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) are both cosmopolitan species and important resources for indigenous peoples, resulting in their widespread presence in faunal assemblages. Additionally, the carpal and tarsal elements of these two mammalian taxa can be difficult to distinguish from human elements because of their similarities in size and shape. Proper identification of faunal and human remains is paramount to responsible cultural resource management (CRM). This thesis presents a textual and photographic osteological guide of black bear and mule deer carpals and tarsals and provides the means for distinguishing these elements from their human counterparts.

Furthermore, most osteology guides do not spend a lot of time on these smaller bones, certainly not with the goal of telling three such ostensibly different species apart.  So it was a Smart move to prepare a thesis that no doubt was excellent training in osteology and zooarchaeology, but also is such a useful, extensively illustrated  document – there are 65 photographic plates and a bone by bone comparison of this confusing bit of skeletal anatomy.  It’s applicable everywhere you get humans, black bear and mule deer together – which is much of North America!  I can easily imagine this going on the laptops of a lot of field archaeologists to help them with quick identification of these ambiguous bones, and hence arrange for prompt, appropriate treatment of the human ones, at least.

Human talus bone differentiated from a bear astragalus. Source: Smart 2009.

2 responses to “Bears, Humans and Deer: disambiguation at last.

  1. Excellent! Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Quentin. There are far too few good faunal osteology guides out there, and of those many are poorly illustrated. This is going on my NWC Zooarch bookshelf asap.


  2. Excellent post. Very informative. Would read again!


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