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Zooarchaeology and Isotopes in the American Tropics

Throughout prehistory, animals have been an integral part of human survival. They were our subsistence base for thousands of years, and provided additional products such as fur, skin, feathers, and bones to make clothes, tools, and ornaments. Animals and their products were traded widely over time, becoming important components of early, and even modern, economic systems. And since animals are similar but not quite the same as humans, they were frequently the focus of many myths and ritual ceremonies, some of which we can still identify in the archaeological record.

Susan Monge analyzing Guanacaste fauna
Susan Monge assembling a skeleton from Guanacaste, Costa Rica (Photo: Ashley Sharpe)

Although the American tropics are not known for their domesticated animals like other parts of the world (dogs and turkeys being two notable exceptions), prehistoric societies were still closely tied to the animal world. Hunting and fishing required special skills and considerable knowledge of animal behavior, including where and how best to find prey at different times of the year, what habitats to locate specific species, and which species were toxic or carried parasites. A growing body of research, made possible by a greater general interest in recovering animal bones and shells at archaeological sites and new techniques like ancient DNA and stable isotopes, is showing that humans had surprising short and long-term effects on the natural environment.

For instance, careful analysis of faunal collections often reveals that communities have preferences for some animals over others, for reasons ranging from simple taste preferences, parasite avoidance, and even taboos. In areas where communities expanded over a long period of time, we can find evidence of hunting and fishing pressure on certain species, including in very rare cases, local extinctions (extirpations). There is also growing evidence that many “wild” animals were caught and maintained in captivity, particularly birds prized for their feathers and animals that may have been saved for a later purpose (for instance, a special ceremony). Some animals, such as deer, birds, and fish, were moved far from their original place of origin; in the case of scarlet macaws and turkeys, for example, they were moved while alive to areas far outside their natural habitats.

Javier Estrada preparing enamel samples
Javier Estrada preparing dog enamel samples from Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala (Photo: Ashley Sharpe)

The STRI archaeology labs house over 2000 modern animal skeletons from all classes (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish) for which to make specimen identifications from bones in the tropics. In recent years, we have had the honor to host investigators from projects in Panama, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala in our labs, making animal specimen identifications and comparing zooarchaeological datasets across the Central American, Caribbean, and northern South American regions. These projects span a number of different time periods and various diverse cultural groups, addressing questions ranging from ancient environments, hunting/fishing strategies, trade, domestication and other forms of management, ritual activities, and bone and shell crafting. In the coming years, we hope to expand the program to further foster the interchange of ideas and discoveries among zooarchaeologists working in the American tropics.