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Chapter Summary

  • Most information about early subsistence comes directly from the remains of the plants and animals that were eaten. The only incontrovertible evidence that something was actually consumed by humans is its presence in either preserved stomachs or feces.
  • Though plant remains are preserved in several different ways, charring is the most common cause of preservation at most sites. In many cases it is plant remains that reveal the function of a location, for example areas used for food processing and preparation. Tools can even suggest that plants were processed at a site. The presence of sickles, for example, may imply cereal cultivation, and phytoliths recovered from the surface of a tool can indicate what species of plant the tool was used to cut. Written evidence gives archaeologists a detailed though short-term view of subsistence.
  • Animal remains retain a high degree of importance in archaeological analysis. The most abundant and informative animal remains are macroremains: bones, teeth, shells, etc. Much effort has been put into the recognition of butchery marks on animal bones to differentiate those killed by humans from those killed by other predators.
  • A major field of archaeology concerns the domestication of plants and animals. In many plant species, selection and utilization by humans brings about changes visible to archaeologists, for example cereal grain size increase. In animals, domestication can be identified through such physical evidence as the preference for one sex of animal for milking herds and through bone diseases related to the penning and working of animals. Progress is being made on tracing the history of domestication through animal DNA. The line between domesticated and undomesticated is hotly debated.
  • Diet can also be assessed from human remains, not only from stomach contents and fecal material, which reveal individual meals, but also from tooth wear and decay, and from isotopic analyses of human bones and teeth, which can reveal a great deal about long-term food intake.

Key Concepts

Macrobotanical Remains

Crop processing, p.275

Paleoethnobotany: A Case Study

Paleoethnobotany, pp.276–77

Chemical Residues in Plants

Fatty lipid analysis, p.279

Plant Impressions

Plant impressions, p.279

Analysis of Plant Residues on Artifacts

Analysis of cutting tools, p.280
Isotopic analysis of residues, p.281

Strategies of Plant Use

Seasonality, p.281
Domestication, p.281

Investigating the Rise of Farming in Western Asia

"Neolithic Revolution", pp.284–85

Information from Animal Resources

Bone markings, pp.286–87

Investigating Diet, Seasonality, and Domestication from Animal Remains

Macroremains, p.288
Sexing, p.289
Animal age, p.289
Season of death, p.289
Domestication, p.289, 293
Changes in animal population, p.295
Deformities and disease, p.299


Taphonomy, pp.292–93

Quantifying Animal Bones

Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI), pp.294–95
Number of Identified Specimens (NISP), pp.294–95

The Study of Animal Teeth

Attritional age profile, p.298
Catastrophic age profile, p.298

Small Fauna: Birds, Fish, and Mollusks

Microfauna and diet, p.302
Fish otoliths, p.305

Shell Midden Analysis

Shell middens, pp.304–05

Tools, Vessels and Residues

Fishing and hunting, p.306
Fat and phosphate residues, p.306
Animal tracks, p.307

Evidence for the Secondary Products Revolution

Secondary products revolution, p.308

Assessing Diet from Human Remains

Diet vs. individual meals, p.310
Stomach contents, p.311
Fecal material, p.311
Tooth decay, p.312

Isotopic Methods: Diet over a Lifetime

Isotopic analysis, pp.312–13
Bone collagen techniques, p.313
Strontium isotope analysis, pp.314–15