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date: 05 April 2020

Faunal Analysis in African Archaeology

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

Faunal analysis (or zooarchaeology) in African archaeology is the identification, analysis, and interpretation of the remains of animal bones recovered from archaeological sites in Africa. Faunal analysis is a core approach in investigations of the African past. Its methods and theoretical underpinnings derive from archaeology, paleontology, and geochemistry, and they extend across all faunal categories. Many of the major issues in African faunal analysis concern large-bodied mammalian taxa, but the approach encompasses analysis of fish, shellfish, birds, reptiles, and indeed, all animal remains found in association with archaeological sites.

The diversity of research encompassed within faunal analysis is further expanded in Africa, where the earliest reported archaeological site (dating to 3.3 million years ago [Ma]) is far older than the earliest widely accepted archaeological site outside of Africa (at 1.8 Ma). The extra time depth affords the African archaeological record an especially wide arena of research questions that are answerable using faunal data. These range from investigations of the very origins of human diet, to analysis of the historical use of animals in trade, exchange, and social status.

At the earliest end of the time spectrum, researchers seek to understand the origins of human ancestral interactions with other animals in their ecosystem. Humans and some human ancestors are the only primates to consume animals of the same or larger body size than themselves, and this change in diet facilitated a number of other key changes in human biological evolution, such as increased brain and body size around 1.8 Ma. Dietary change may also have been instrumental in driving technological change, as hunting became more important in our lineage. Our ancestors moved into a more carnivorous niche and came into greater competition with other predators, fundamentally shifting the way they interacted with other organisms in their ancestral environments.

Faunal analysis in African archaeology has been especially important in the development of taphonomic method and theory. Taphonomy is the study of what happens to an organism’s remains after death and includes processes that can severely impact what parts survive and ultimately become part of the fossil record. Common taphonomic processes include human butchery, carnivore consumption and scattering of the remains, burial and decomposition, and post-depositional movement or alteration through the actions of wind, water, and micro-organisms. In the first part of the 20th century, faunal analysis mainly focused on the identification of species that are found in archaeological assemblages. Taphonomic research, starting mainly in the 1960s, sparked an ongoing tradition of studying site formation processes through faunal analysis, with a particular focus on sites in the Rift Valley and in the southern African Cradle of Humankind, dating between 1.8 Ma and 500 thousand years ago (ka). These methods and insights have since transferred to other contexts outside of Africa, where they have become an essential part of the zooarchaeological toolkit.

Africa is also home to the earliest sites produced by members of our own species, Homo sapiens. Faunal analysis has been deployed extensively as a way to understand two key aspects of sites dating between ~500 and 50 ka—what environments were like at the time of early modern human evolution, when our species first achieved the ecological dominance it has today. Modern hunter-gatherers deploy a number of complex technologies and social behaviors in their daily foraging and hunting tasks, and faunal analysis is useful for understanding when these behaviors first emerged. Similarly, it is useful for understanding how later hunters and gatherers dealt with the changing abundance of resources that came with major environmental shifts such as the Last Glacial Maximum ~18 ka, or the end of the Ice Ages ~10.5 ka.

The African continent experienced a major change in human subsistence and land use patterns over the last 10,000 years, with the rise and expansion of food production. However, unlike in most other parts of the world, African food production began with pastoralism. Faunal analysis has played a pivotal role in debates about its origins and spread, mainly based on the morphology of animal bones. Food production, including use of domesticated livestock, spread into the southern tip of South Africa by ~1,300 years ago, accompanying a massive reconfiguration of human populations known as the Bantu expansion. New advances in ancient DNA and collagen fingerprinting are beginning to make a strong contribution to the archaeology of later African time periods, where research questions range from the rise and spread of exchange networks to the ethnicity and diet of different groups of people during historical time periods.