What can animals tell us about humans?


" For me, zooarchaeology is the study of animals - their remains representations (artistic, linguistic, or literary) and associated material culture - to examine the most fundamental issues concerning past societies, how people behaved and how they thought."
  Dr Naomi Sykes

Archaeologists, historians and anthropologists have pieced together information from drawings, artifacts, books, inscriptions and evidence from surviving primitive cultures. So for example, if a skull is found buried with Roman artifacts it may tell us about that person and his or her place in society. If animals are buried with humans by some cultures today, this may reflect customs that have been going on for thousands of years.

Today archaeologists also use scientific instruments to study human and animal remains to find ancient DNA, stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and strontium and even fats from cooking pots. These measurements tell us more about where animals came from, when they were introduced into Britain, how they were used and who owned or looked after them.

The ancient images in Figs 2.1 & 2.2 show how important animals were in different cultures. This historical evidence can now be reinforced with scientific evidence ranging from simple measurements to atomic spectroscopy.

This web resource looks at some of these techniques and the information they reveal.

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Fig. 2.1 The Iron Age god of animals was called Cernunnos. He was half human and half deer. He lived with and protected wild animals.

Fig. 2.2  The Romans had Diana, a goddess of hunting. This image from a Roman vase shows Diana riding a fallow deer.
Fallow deer were sacred to Diana.