Fish are an important part of human diet now and in the past. Archaeological fish bones can tell us about human diet and behaviour, but they are often small and difficult to identify. Explore some of the ways archaeological scientists analyze bones just by examining them closely.

What bones are present?

What species are present?

What age was the fish?

What evidence is present?

Read More. . .

Fish have more bones in their heads than in the human body.  The numbers of different types of bones can tell us about how fish were processed.  For example, if there are only head bones it might indicate that the area was a processing site where the heads are removed and the bodies of the fish were sold to be eaten at another location.

Species of fish can tell us about where humans were fishing and what fishing methods they used.  For example Gadids live in the ocean.  Many Salmonids swim between rivers and the ocean.  Cyprinids live in freshwater.  Here are examples of three different from modern fish of several different species in each category.  See if you can spot the differences.

Because it can be difficult to identify fish bones to species just by looking at the bones and comparing them to modern references (morphology), there are other ways to identify the bones to species using DNA and Proteins.

Unlike humans, fish grow their entire lives.  Some fish can live for more than 50 years.  We can tell age from growth rings on otoliths (ear bones) of from the length of the fish.

Human and animals can leave marks on bones.  These marks can be from different activities including butchery, processing, cooking, consumption, or use.  This evidence can tell us about human activity.

Cut marks on bones can
tell us about the method
of butchery including the
tools uses.  Red circles highlight butchery marks
on two different bones.
Bones can show evidence
of burning indicating
cooking the fish one the
bone (top) or marks from chewing by either animals
or humans (bottom).
Items can be made from shell and
bone:  Herring bone chess pieces
(Iceland 12-13th cent); Mother of Perl
shell fish hooks (Hawaii 13th cent); Sturgeon scute pendant
(Estonia 7-11th cent).

Hake Curve: M.L Godinho, M.H. Afonso, & C. Morgado.  Bol. Inst. Esp. Oceanogr.  17, 255-262 (2001).
Butchery Images: C. Cakirlar, S. Ikram, & M-H. Gates.  Int. J. Osteoarch. 26, 3-16 (2016).
Chess Piece: B. Larusdottir. Dig material from Siglunes in Siglufjordur, Iceland (2002).
Fish Hooks: A. Lawler. Arcaeology, 03 April (2015).
Scute Pendant: T. Jonuks & E. Rannamae. Bioarcheology of Ritual and Religion (2017).