Changing Planet

Zooarchaeology—Making Roadkill Cool!

Sarah Kennedy is a zooarchaeologist investigating the lives of native Peruvians under Spanish rule in their colonial period. In this installment, she delves into what being a zooarchaeologist is really all about.

I have to admit, the first zooarchaeologist I ever met seemed a little weird. She kept telling me how she wanted her friends to pick up dead roadkill from the side of the highway and bring it back to her archaeology lab. Actual, dead animals! She would tell me about the different methods she was using to clean the animal bones, such as burying the bodies or soaking them in water, but I didn’t pay too much attention. It all seemed a tad gross and, as a young anthropology student, I wasn’t really sure what dead animals had to do with archaeology.

The cranium of pig (Sus scrofa) is part of the growing scientific comparative collection. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
The cranium of a pig (Sus scrofa) is part of our growing scientific comparative collection. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)

Right now, I am working as a zooarchaeologist myself in northern Peru, studying animal bones from ancient fishing settlements. I have now learned that animal bones can actually tell you quite a lot about past human lives. They tell archaeologists what kind of food people ate in the past, what food they hunted, what food they raised themselves, what other uses they had for their animals (such as for labor, fiber, protection, etc.) and what kind of trade or exchange took place with their animals. In general, animal remains can tell us archaeologists about human-animal relationships in the past.

Zooarchaeology can teach us a lot about past human lives, but getting back to my initial paragraph, it can also involve the not-so-glamorus process of boiling and/or dismembering the remains of dead animals. When zooarchaeologists identify animal species found during excavations, they usually use comparative skeletal collections to confirm a correct species identification. Many zooarchaeologists gain access to skeletal collections in natural history museums, which usually have a wide array of specimens available for study.

Peruvian zooarchaeologist Sarita Fuentes Villalobos examines a fish vertebra from the comparative collection.  (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
Peruvian zooarchaeologist Sarita Fuentes Villalobos examines a fish vertebra from our comparative collection. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)

On the North Coast of Peru, however, there is limited access to faunal comparative collections for my research. Therefore, for our archaeology project, I am rapidly becoming an expert in dead animal collection and processing. Luckily, I’ve met quite a few locals who are also interested in zooarchaeology and they have been helping me aquire specimens. Ali Altamirano, a biologist from the Natural History Museum in Lima, Peru, prepared more than 10 different animal specimens for me in May, adding to my small collection of fish and birds that I had accumulated last year. My collection now includes remains of fish, shark, guinea pig, fox, chicken, pig, and sheep! Earlier this month, I was also “gifted” a dead skunk and a gray hooded sea gull from some local friends! That is really the true meaning of friendship!

Comparative skeletal remains drying in the hot Peruvian sun. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
Comparative skeletal remains drying in the hot Peruvian sun. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)

The real “interesting” part of the comparative collection process takes place after collecting the specimens. Many researchers use water masseration, which is very simple—you soak your specimen in water, changing the water every few days. Warm water works best! This is the method I’ve been using here in northern Peru, since I don’t have access to a colony of dermestid beetles to eat away the flesh. At the end of our project, I hope to have a large, usable comparative faunal collection that I can then store in Peru for future research. The collection will also be available for all foreign and local researchers, hopefully opening up the study of zooarchaeology for many researchers in northern Peru!

Fox skeletal remains, slowly processing in water. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
Fox (Lycalopex sp.) skeletal remains, slowly processing in water. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)

Read More by Sarah Kennedy

Sarah Kennedy is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Florida, as well as a National Geographic Young Explorer. Her current research focuses on ancient food practices in Peru. Specifically, she is researching how the diet and daily life of indigenous Peruvians changed during the Spanish Conquest on the North Coast of Peru.

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