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Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Boneyard

Doggy and Elk Bone Taphonomy in action

As an archaeologist I love watching what our dogs do to the bones in our yard.  Archaeology is all about learning about people's past behavior by studying what they left behind.  And a big part of that is studying food bones in trash heaps.  By studying the bones archaeologists can learn what people were hunting, and even a lot about how they were doing it.  For instance, were they bringing the whole animal back to camp?  Did they focus on hunting a particular age class of animal?  Did certain people in a village eat higher quality food than others etc?

However, archaeologists also have to be aware of what happened to the bones they study after they were thrown away but before they were dug up in an archaeological excavation.  What processes might be skewing the patterns archaeologists see when they analyze the bones? Taphonomy is originally a term used by paleontologists to describe the process an organism goes through before its bones ended up in the fossil record.  Archaeologists have borrowed this term to describe the processes occurring to animal bones before they are discovered in an excavation.

So to get back to my yard - what would an archaeologist 200 years in the future make of the trash in my yard?  Just judging by what is shown in the picture above the archaeologist would think the inhabitants drank soda, beer, and soup purchased from a store (the cans blew out of the recycle bin), and ate a lot of elk and a little deer (I see 4 large elk and 3 possible deer and or goat/reindeer bones).  If they were really good they would also notice that there are no axial skeleton bones in my yard.  This would indicate that the animals were butchered in the field and only the 'bone in meat' was carried back to the house.  But I wonder if they would be able to account for what the dogs do to the bones in my yard?

Each year I butcher quite a few deer, and their bones along with a few from various other animals such as reindeer, mountain goat and elk make it into my yard.  And I'll add that fish bones go straight back into the ocean!  What's amazing is that year after year all that remains in my yard by spring is the elk bones.  The bones from the smaller animals all get totally crunched and eaten up by the dogs. But not the elk bones - it seems they are too big and robust for my doggie's teeth and jaw muscles.

So if you were to excavate my yard and did not consider the doggy taphonomic processes going on you would get a skewed picture of the animal bones that originally ended up in my yard.


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