Half a Million Old Fish Bones

McKechnie and Moss Fish Bones_v7

McKechnie, Iain and Madonna L. Moss  2016  Meta-analysis in Zooarchaeology Expands Perspectives on Indigenous Fisheries of the Northwest Coast of North America. Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2016.04.006 online, May 22, 2016.

If you are what you eat, then your compost pile is a treasure trove of information about your culture and surrounding environment. “We know a lot more than we think we do about Indigenous fishing practices, but our knowledge was scattered across hundreds of project reports,” says Iain McKechnie, an assistant professor at the University of Victoria and formerly a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Oregon.

Iain and I catalogued over half a million fish bones that were excavated from 222 separate archaeological sites in the Pacific Northwest over the past 40 years­—over 10,000 years of compost. What’s new here is that Iain has brought his skill in GIS and spatial analysis to zooarchaeology, and this allows us to synthesize data in ways we couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago.  When Aubrey Cannon and I edited the book, Archaeology of North Pacific Fisheries (2011), we brought together experts who presented their results from valuable, localized perspectives. But new analytical techniques make possible a much broader understanding of the diversity of fishing and fish use across the Northwest Coast.

Iain and I used a simple but seldom used quantitative measure called ubiquity—whether bones from a certain fish species were found at any given archaeological site—and mapped the resulting patterns across the Pacific coast of North America. Ubiquity is like measuring the popularity of a YouTube video by how many countries people watch it in, as opposed to total numbers of views. Ubiquity doesn’t give a measure of how much of each fish species that people used, but rather, where they used it.

As expected, bones from the seven local salmon species were among the most common fish used on the coast. However, salmon weren’t the only ubiquitous fish. Bones from Pacific herring were the most common species found. But it wasn’t just herring and salmon on the menu. Halibut, lingcod, and Pacific cod were also fished, as they are today.  But other species that are often discarded or ignored by fishers today also show up routinely in archaeological sites, including sculpins (like the colorful red and yellow Irish lords), dogfish and skates (shark family). Even Iain and I were surprised at how common greenlings, hake, surfperch, anchovies and smelts were in archaeological sites.


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