Tag Archives: Taphonomy

Ungulates Gnawing: Osteophagia & Bone Modifications

24 Oct

Osteophagia: Osteophagia is the act of ungulates (including giraffes, camels, cattle, etc.) chewing on another species skeletal remains to gain nutrition (particularly minerals such as phosphorus and calcium) that may be lacking in other parts of their largely vegetarian diets.  This includes the chewing of antlers, horns and ivory, as well as skeletal elements.  It is a relatively well documented animal behaviour that occurs across numerous taxa and across continents.

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I’ve been meaning to highlight this article by Hutson et al. (2013) for a while as it nicely illustrates the actions of animals in the archaeological record that can sometimes be interpreted, or mistaken, for a human or taphonomic origin.  Hutson et al. (2013) discusses the impact that ostephagia can have on archaeological contexts and carefully identifies the differences between large and small ungulate osteophagia-based actions.  Taking 12 individual and observed case studies of osteophagia examples recovered from modern field contexts in Australia, North America and Africa, the study highlights the different styles of bone modifications made by each species to help identify the often distinct bone modifications that they leave in their wake.  The case studies include examples of wildebeest (C. taurinus) bones having been gnawed by giraffes, elephant (Loxodonta africana) ivory gnawed by kudu or sable antelope, and a camel (C. dromedarius) radius fragment having been gnawed by a camel.

Hutson et al. (2013: 4140) notes that ‘previous studies have shown that ungulates gnaw both cortical and cancellous bone and elements in almost any state, from fresh to completely bleached, desiccated, and weathered”.  The favoured bones to gnaw during scavenging among ungulates are elements of the long bones, vertebrae, scapulae, skulls and ribs, and, if munching on long bones, the larger ungulates often position the axis of the bone ‘like a cigar held in a human mouth’ (Hutson 2013: 4140).

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This diagram shows porcupine gnawed B. taurus limb elements, where a) is the right tibia and b) is the left femur. Notice the what look like long striations, which are in fact gnawing lines (click to enlarge). Image credit: Fig 8 from Hutson et al. 2013: 4147.

Importantly, the authors differentiate the classes of ostephagia-based bone damage caused by large ungulates and compare it to the typical bone damage caused by carnivores and other primarily meat-eating scavengers, such as lions, panthers and tigers.  This comparative approach takes into account 10 separate features of bone damage often found on gnawed skeletal remains (including evidence of prey selection, bone selection, bone state, bone transport, tooth mark type and general morphology amongst others) and highlights the varied differences between the two behaviours of ungulates and carnivores (Hutson et al. 2013: 4148).  Perhaps of primary importance in this article is that fact that tooth morphology varies according to species and purpose, as such the authors explicitly highlight that, alongside this, the age of the individual animal, and thus the state of its teeth, gnawing the bone can affect the patterning expected (Hutson et al. 2013: 4147).

ostephagia hutson etal13

This rib was found at the fringe of a scatter of skeletal elements from one individual. Showing the distinctive forking and crushing of ungulate gnawing, this B. taurus rib was likely gnawed by cattle whilst still relatively fresh. Image credit: Fig 6. in Hutson et al. 2013: 4145.

Of course care should always be taken in the recording of gnawing evidence, as teeth in both humans and non-humans can wear down and gouging styles can vary.  However, the distinguishing marks made between ungulates during the act of osteophagia and the selectivity of active carnivores and scavengers is vital for the archaeologist as it can infer on the context of the gnawed skeletal remains.  This can help identify the fauna previously present on-site and the actions that took place based on replicating the known evidence.  The analysis of faunal bones at archaeological and palaeoanthropological sites should, of course, be used in conjunction with other taphonomy techniques to fully understand site formation.

All in all, this is an interesting paper that adds real depth to the taphonomic literature and should be of note to both archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists in interpreting the actions of both humans and non-humans during site formation.

Update 26/10/14

Osteophagia is just one method that mammals use to gain extra nutrients in their diet, another method is mineral lick.  As with osteophagia it has long been noted that animals will exploit their environments by eating or otherwise digesting natural soils, clays and rocks to gain elements (particularly salt) that may be missing in nutrient poor ecosystems (Lundquist & Varnedoe Jr 2006).  Mineral lick is particularly prevalent among giraffes, elephants, moose, cattle and tapirs (and other mammals) as a way to increase the amounts of minerals, such as potassium, calcium, sulfur, phosphorus, and sodium, in their diets.  Although the knowledge of so-called salt caves and their origin with animal behaviour is well know, it is thought that they are under-estimated in current estimates of their prevalence (Lundquist & Varnedoe Jr 2006: 18).  As such these natural landscape features should also be taken into account when understanding the formation and duration of palaeoanthropological and archaeological sites.

Bibliography

Hutson, J. M., Burke, C. C. & Haynes, G. 2013. Osteophagia and Bone Modifications by Giraffe and Other Large Ungulates. Journal of Archaeological Science. 40 (12): 4139-4149.

Lundquist, C. A. & Varnedoe Jr, W. W. 2006. Salt Ingestion Caves. International Journal of Speleology. 35 (1): 13-18. (Open Access).

What Not To Do In A Morgue: A Lesson For The Archaeologist?

4 Feb

The fantastic Chirurgeon’s  Apprentice Facebook page has highlighted this rather dark but entertaining article by Simon Winchester on his experience of working in a morgue for a summer in the early 1960’s.  In it Simon explains the many lessons he learned when dealing first hand with cadavers of the recently dead, but he also highlights one big mistake he made with a particular gentleman.

Winchester explains:

All this may have been a mistake of judgment. It was not, however, the Mistake. That came a month into my employment when a couple of attendants wheeled into the mortuary the lifeless and, except for his bare feet, rather well-dressed corpse of an elderly, white-haired man. By this time such a delivery was quite routine: I had already had many similar encounters with the lately dead. But this fellow was different, mainly because he had a large tag tied around his big toe. On it was written a question mark and in large letters the word LEUKEMIA.

I was alone in the building at the time of the delivery, and I wasn’t immediately sure what to do. But a bit of riffling through Mr. Utton’s desk eventually fetched up a tattered old manual describing what to do in the event of discovering gunshot wounds, for example, or upon finding an eruption of angry-looking and possibly infection-laden spots on a corpse. It offered me a single line of advice on leukemia: “Remove femur,” it said, “and send it for examination by the laboratory.” (Winchester 2014).

Duly having removed one of the gentleman’s femora for testing and then prepared and dressed the cadaver, Winchester waited for the undertaker to come and take the man away.  However the undertaker was not impressed by the rather floppy state of one of the man’s thighs and told Winchester to put something inside it to stabilize it whilst he went away for dinner.  Unfortunately Winchester chose a zinc metal rod to replace the removed femur, unaware that the individual in question was due to be cremated, not buried, the next day.

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A familiar scene from morgues across the land. Tags were often kept on the toes of bodies to identify them and highlight any pathology in the body (Image credit: Bettmann/CORBIS, from here).

Fortunately a good dose of black humour from the family saved any law suits appearing, but the article did make me think about the implications for this in archaeological record.  For example for a person to practice a trade they must first learn and train, often undergoing an apprenticeship under a master or a tradesman.  Mistakes are bound to made in any field of trade, particularly where high technical skill is needed to carry out a procedure.  I wonder if sometimes, especially in the field of prehistoric mortuary archaeology, some things are held up as examples of ritual activities where there has perhaps been a simple mistake that has been covered up or not uncovered, or a result of the taphonomy processes at play.

It also reminded me of a particularly fine biography by Joel F. Harrington of a 16th century Nuremberg executioner that I read late last year.  Meister Franz Schmidt (1555-1634) was a remarkable man, known principally as a highly skilled executioner who attained a particularly high rank in the famous city.  Contrary to his official position Schmidt also became a well-respected healer in his later life.  He carried out his job, indeed his life, with the up-most respect for the sanctity of the position that his father passed down to him, even though he was largely excluded from society because of his job during the majority of his life.  Amazingly the intimate details (names, crimes and last moments) of the many individuals that he dispatched, and the execution methods that were used, were all kept in a personally sparse diary that Schmidt himself wrote.

Schmidt executing

The only reliable picture of Franz Schmidt in action, seen here executing Hans Froschel on the 18th of May in 1591. A brutal but quick death by the sword, a method that required a quick and a steady arm stroke to dispatch the victim. It could easily go wrong if the stroke was not powerful enough to slice and separate the head from the body. (Image credit: Staatsarchiv Nürnberg here).

Harrington makes the point that the young executioner, during the process of learning his trade from his father, likely used butchered animals and stray dogs to practice the various execution methods that were used during this period.  Whilst the book is full of grisly details (being broken on the wheel must have been hell for one), Harrington (2013) puts Schmidt, his life and work, into a broader German and European political framework that effectively illuminates the value that the executioner played in the keeping of law and order in the 16th century.

Being an executioner also often took a physical and mental strain as it was a demanding office to hold, having to both torture and execute criminals but also having to take part in the often elaborate processions of walking the criminal (Harrington 2013).  Further to this there was always the constant reminder that executioners who were accused of a botched torture session or execution could find themselves being penalized or outcast, or even executed, much like the doctors of the day who were accused of failing a patient (Harrington 2013).  I also recommend Winder’s (2011) informal free for all journey around Germany, which also wonderfully places the country in a historical context and is well worth a read alone for some pretty interesting historical hangouts.

Further Information

  • The article, by Simon Winchester, can be found here.
  • An extract of Meister Franz Schmidt’s diary and of a talk by Harrington can be read here.
  • Head to medical historian Dr Lindsey Fitzharris’s enthralling site The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice to learn all about surgery in the early modern period.
  • For all your mortuary archaeology needs head to Bones Don’t Lie, a regularly updated blog by Katy Meyers who is a PhD candidate in mortuary anthropology at Michigan State University.

Bibliography

Harrington, J. F. 2013. The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent 16th Century. London: Picador.

Winder, S. 2011. Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern. London: Picador.