Tim Heaton at work in OYK cave. Screenshot from video.
On July 4, 1996, paleontologist Tim Heaton was busy at his last day of fieldwork at On-Your-Knees Cave on northern Prince of Wales Island, Southeast Alaska (map). At this and other caves Heaton had recovered a remarkable array of fauna from both before, during, and after the last glacial maximum, including a variety of black and brown bear bones. Until this point, he had not found any human remains, but that changed with the discovery of a human mandible and the subsequent discoveries of other scattered, chewed remains. In due course, an archaeological site was also found at the entrance to the cave, dating to about 10,300 calender years ago, the same as the human remains. Excavation at this site was led by E. James (Jim) Dixon, whose footsteps I often feel like I am stumbling along in. In one layer in the site, they actually found one of the missing teeth from the mandible, showing the extent to which the bones had been scattered, and, sinisterly, chewed, presumably by bears. The most likely interpretation is that the site represents a bear hunting camp at the entrance to the cave, and that on at least one occasion, the bears got the upper hand.
Anyway, the remains of this young man have revealed important details of the life of early people on the Northwest Coast, and the study also exemplifies how strong relationships, respect, and adherence to protocol can allow for scientific and cultural priorities to unfold together. It’s therefore quite exciting to find a 30 minute video detailing the process of research at On-Your-Knees Cave: “Kuwoot yas.ein: His Spirit is Looking Out from the Cave“.
Maxillae of the Great Sculpin. Source: PSU
OK, I have written more exciting headlines in my life. But as I noted before, zooarchaeologists – the specialists in identifying and interpreting animal remains – are some of the unsung heroes of archaeology. The discipline requires encyclopedic knowledge of hundreds of animal skeletons, the ability to relate even small fragments from archaeological contexts back to whole specimens of known species, and a thorough understanding of both culture and ecology – all this in addition to the normal skill set of a typical archaeologist. Master all this, and your reward is to be called “Bone Guy” (or worse) for the rest of your professional life.
Anyway, it is welcome to find another online guide to some common archaeological animal remains from the Northwest. While I know it is a bit too much information for many readers of this web site, it is important to share the link and information, since considerable time and effort was put into this admittedly niche set of illustrated fish bones, and archaeologists need to be aware of it.
Swainson's Hawk skull. Three views from RBCM Avian Osteology site.
I made a post the other day on a cool M.A. thesis about how to tell deer, bear and human wrist and ankle bones apart. Identification of bones is one of the essential specialist activities in archaeology: the bones don’t come out of the ground labelled, and yet they are a key way to understand past diet, behaviour and environmental change. Being able to identify a bone from the ground to the species it comes from requires a collection of bones of known species – a comparative collection – and these do not grow on trees. They are laborious to produce and finicky to curate. The one at the University of Victoria, for example, contains over 1,500 skeletons and is in constant use by archaeologists and biologists, not to mention the awesomely talented people at Pacific IDentifications. Mind you, the UVIC collection is one of the best anywhere in North America, but most archaeology departments and even many consulting archaeologists attempt to have a basic comparative collection on hand. This is a burdensome chore!
While looking at pictures will never be a substitute for a three-dimensional bone for comparison, it can nonetheless be better than nothing. It is therefore nice to see a really useful, if preliminary, set of web pages at the Royal B.C. Museum on Avian osteology.
Posted in Archaeology, Miscellaneous, Uncategorized
Tagged bones, faunal remains, museums, Northwest Coast, osteology, owls, RBCM, Royal BC Museum, University of Victoria, uvic, zooarchaeology
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.
Posted in anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural Resource Management, Northwest Interior, Northwest Coast, Teaching, Washington State
Tagged Archaeology, black bear, bones, carpals, deer, osteology, skeletons, tarsals, Washington State, zooarchaeology
From PacificID's Dog Burial Field Guide.
Dogs are such an important source of evidence for past human life. Not just as “man’s best friend” and all that but because of the insight they give into domestication, into evolutionary processes, as proxies for stable isotope studies of human diet, and so forth. So, pretty great to see PacificID is putting out a field guide to dog burials and in situ dog remains in archaeology, complete with snazzy laminated ID card. The book itself is also printed on waterproof paper. There are also downloadable diagrams (PDF) for recording dog burials. The author, Dr. Susan Crockford, is an authority on the evolution of dogs and other domestication and evolution issues, and on dog osteology. This looks like excellent value for money.