Land and Sea: Use of Terrestrial Mammal Bones in Coastal Hunter-Gatherer Communities

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On archaeological sites of coastal hunter-gatherers, marine taxa often far outnumber terrestrial mammals among the unmodified faunal remains. In such cases, terrestrial mammals are generally deemed unimportant in the overall economy because of their minor contribution to the diet. Such inferences overlook the fact that land mammals also provide numerous other materials including bone and antler, which may have played crucial roles in past economic lifeways. Several lines of evidence indicate the importance of terrestrial mammals as a source of raw materials for the manufacture of marine hunting and fishing equipment. These tools were used to support the main subsistence economies. This observation stems from our experience in working with the archaeological records from the Northwest Coast of North America (FR) and the coast of Arctic Norway (LH).

The Northwest Coast and the importance of terrestrial mammals

The Northwest Coast is one of few areas of the world where complex hierarchical societies developed on the basis of non-agricultural (marine-focused) modes of subsistence. After 5000 BP, marine and riverine taxa heavily dominate archaeofaunal assemblages along the entire coast, although this dietary focus on marine protein likely developed much earlier (Carlson 1998: 31-2). Most Northwest Coast peoples lived in large semi-sedentary villages with associated middens, and had developed rich ritual and artistic traditions, and large trade networks (Matson & Coupland 1995). In most cases, the economic basis for this phenomenon was the harvest and surplus storage of Pacific salmon.

Independent lines of evidence suggest that considerable economic (non-dietary) importance was attached to large terrestrial mammals. Archaeologically this is manifest in the large number and diversity of artefacts manufactured on terrestrial mammal bone. Additionally, numerous ethnographic and historical references indicate the importance of terrestrial mammal bone and antler tools in fishing, woodworking and other activities. The economic contribution of land-mammal elements is less apparent in the `unmodified' archaeofaunal samples (Rahemtulla 1998).

Specimen counts in archaeofaunal samples usually evince deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and wapiti (Cervus elaphus) as being numerically dominated by marine taxa. A problem with taxonomic identification in faunal samples concerns degree of bone fragmentation. Bone artefact production and other taphonomic processes result in high numbers of waste fragments, or unidentifiable land-mammal bones. Salmon vertebrae, on the other hand, are relatively easy to identify and occur in large numbers. As a result, large land-mammal relative frequencies (by NISP) tend to be low. At the same sites, though, large numbers of bone and antler artefacts are typically made on deer and/or wapiti elements.

This pattern is typified at the unusually well preserved site of Ozette in Washington state (FIGURE 1), where deer remains comprise just over 1% of the site faunal assemblage (TABLE 1), yet they provide a substantial amount of raw material for bone artefact production. Ozette is atypical of most Northwest Coast economies in that its occupants were involved in intensive whaling, and they produced a considerable number of artefacts on bones of this taxon. If whalebone artefacts are removed from the sample, an overwhelming 89% are made on land-mammal bone, most likely deer. An additional 1174 bone artefacts were not classified to taxon, but the majority of these are thought to be made on land-mammal bone as well (Huelsbeck 1994: 50), potentially increasing the deer representation even further. Overall, the Ozette data strongly suggest that terrestrial mammal bones were highly selected for tool manufacture, and are therefore under-represented in the unmodified faunal material (Huelsbeck 1994: 49). A similar pattern is evident at several other Northwest Coast sites (TABLE 1). …