Michelle Rathgaber, Arkansas Archeological Survey
"Archeology is..." series - May 2024

Long bone fragments that have been cut off at the top end (pen cap for scale).
Zoology is the study of animals. Specifically, per the Merriam Webster Dictionary, it is a branch of biology concerned with the classification and the properties and vital phenomena of animals. So basically, it is studying all aspects of animals from where they live, who they live with, and what they eat, to how their bones are shaped, how they evolved into what they look like now, how each of their organs and organ systems work, what they are like on a cellular level, and even details more minute than that (like DNA or isotopes of strontium, but that’s another article). As a zooarcheologist, I study animals associated with the human past. As Mel wrote about when describing how archeology is anthropology, archeology deals with humans. But humans deal with animals in a variety of ways—and have throughout history—so the study of animals is essential to the study of archeology and understanding human lives in the past.
At the most basic and essential level, zooarcheologists identify animal bones from archeological sites so that we can understand what animals people had access to in the past. Access can mean a lot of different things and zooarcheologists help to figure this out. Sometimes access means use as a food source. If there are cut marks (tiny lines on the bone made when a stone tool hit the bone when cutting through muscle) on the bone or a large assemblage of meat heavy bones (like the upper legs), this often indicates that the animal was used as food. Sometimes access means commensal animals (such as mice, snakes, frogs, etc.) that live alongside humans. They aren’t pets, but they aren’t necessarily pests either.  When almost every bone from a single small animal is present this can mean that the animal was scavenging and got caught in a place where it couldn’t escape (like a trash pit) and it died there. Sometimes access can mean companion animals. Archeologists sometimes find whole animals in a context that tells us that they were purposefully buried, rather than accidentally trapped, so the animals were likely companions (like a dog or cat today).
Faunal remains of a young deer.
If archeologists find a large enough assemblage of one type of herd animals’ bones on any given site, zooarcheologists can give insight into how people were interacting with those animals. In parts of the world where people domesticated sheep and goats, zooarcheologists can examine the age and sex of the animals that were killed to learn if people were keeping them for meat, milk, or wool. If there are sites that date back long enough into the past in some areas, zooarcheologists can look at the skeletal changes in animals as they were domesticated by people in a region.
More recently, isotope and DNA analysis of animal bones have become important sources of information that zooarcheologists can use to understand animals in the past. Isotopes can help us to understand what animals ate and if they lived in a different area when they were born than when they died. DNA analysis can help us to understand genetic differences in animals through time and across space. As the field of zoology itself advances, zooarcheology advances as well. If you are interested in zoology but looking for an alternative to the common zoological careers of veterinarian, zookeeper, researcher, or medical doctor, think about applying your skills and knowledge to the field of archeology.

“Archeology is…” Series Information

In this series we plan to highlight the many and various things that Are Archeology, from Art to Zoology and everything in between. We hope you enjoy learning a bit more about the variety of things that archeologists do and specialize in and maybe it will inspire you to be an archeologist even if you love learning about things in another field. You can find all the entries here.