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Herring bones excavated from 49-PET-067 the Coffman Cove Site on Prince of Wales Island

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Photo courtesy of Madonna Moss

Zooarchaeology, the study of animal bones from archaeological sites, provides an unparalleled record of animal distribution and abundance over varying temporal and spatial scales.  When coupled with paleoenvironmental indicators (e.g., tree-rings, pollen,isotope data, and so on), it is possible to examine species responses to past environmental change in detail.  Zooarchaeology also provides a record of long-term human-animal relationships and indicates both the extent to which human use of animals was sustainable (or not), as well as the degree to which animal distributions were determined by human behavior in the past.  In short, zooarchaeological records can contribute to a range of issues within conservation biology, including understanding the long-term relationship between climate change and animal distributions and abundances; identifying animal ranges prior to industrialization or habitat fragmentation; and understanding the nature of human-environmental factors that contribute to long-term species survival or loss. 

Our project team consists of Dr. Madonna Moss (University of Oregon), Dr. Virginia Butler (Portland State University) and Mr. Tait Elder (graduate student, Portland State University).  The archaeological component of the Herring Synthesis Project has three main parts. In the first phase, we are creating a database summarizing our current knowledge of zooarchaeological records from Southeast Alaska.  Taxonomic information for herring and other vertebrate and invertebrate fauna is being compiled from existing reports, including Forest Service and contract reports that are not widely distributed. We gratefully acknowledge the help of USDA Forest Service archaeologists Terry Fifield, Jane Smith, Martin Stanford, Myra Gilliam, Mark McCallum and others who have provided copies of unpublished reports.  All of the faunal data will be included to provide estimates of relative abundance.  Direct measurement of absolute prehistoric animal population levels using zooarchaeology is difficult; our approach will examine trends by comparing herring abundance relative to other taxa (e.g., other fish, marine mammals, etc.).  Reviewing the entire faunal record will also allow us to consider ways the Tlingit, Haida, and their ancestors relied on broader food webs and how these strategies may have varied over time and space.  The database we are developing lists the published and unpublished site reports, excavation methods, including screen size, volume excavated, condition and age estimate from radiocarbon or other methods, and site location. Importantly, excavation methods, particularly screen size used to recover bones and teeth, affect measures of taxonomic abundance.  Given their small size, herring remains are especially prone to loss and are numerically under-represented unless fine mesh sieving and laboratory analysis of bulk samples are undertaken.  As part of our analysis, we will consider variation in analytic decisions and sampling approaches across the site records to insure comparability. 

The second phase of the project will involve close analysis of faunal records to identify temporal and spatial trends in herring and other animal records. We will consider ways archaeological method (location of testing and excavation, sampling decisions, recovery methods) affects our knowledge of past animal use.  Given constraints in sampling, we will document patterns in herring use over time and space, and when possible link trends with known cultural changes in settlement pattern, social organization, and technology or environmental forces (changing climate, sea-level changes). 

A final part of the project will incorporate the archaeological herring records (site location and other attributes, such as age, site function, other animal bone records) into the Herring Synthesis GIS being developed based on Traditional and Local Ecological Knowledge and historic catch and herring resource records.  

As of July 2008, we have compiled faunal records from ~35 archaeological projects in southeast Alaska.  Most of the sites are from the southern portion of the study area, probably due to more intensive archaeological fieldwork carried out there.  Preliminary review of the data indicates that 17 archaeological sites have herring remains.  The earliest herring remains are about 8000 radiocarbon years old and from the Chuck Lake Site (49-CRG-237) on Heceta Island.  Most of the records date to the last 4000 years.  Stay tuned for more results to come.  


Inferring Past Herring Distribution and Abundance from Zooarchaeology



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Documenting and Modeling Herring Spawning Areas within Socio-Ecological Systems over Time in the Southeastern Gulf of Alaska