Distinguishing offshore bird hunting from beach scavenging in archaeological contexts: The value of modern beach surveys
Publication date: June 2016
Source:Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 70
Author(s): Kristine M. Bovy, Jessica E. Watson, Jane Dolliver, Julia K. Parrish
Determining whether seabirds recovered from coastal shell middens were obtained via active hunting or scavenging of beached carcasses is a challenge for archaeologists. Traditional methods have included analyzing skeletal part frequencies, abundance, age profiles, and contextual evidence. The assumption has been made, based on limited biological data, that an assemblage of carcasses scavenged from the beach will have more wing elements, and fewer legs and heads. Few studies, however, have embraced modern beaching data to verify this assumption and assess the potential faunal resources available for scavenging. We analyze the skeletal part representation of modern beached birds observed by the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), comparing the COASST dataset to two idealized hypotheses used by archaeologists: the human scavenging hypothesis (wings only are recovered, while heads and legs are absent) and the human hunting hypothesis (all body parts are found in equal proportions). Finally, we apply these results to analysis of the bird remains from the Minard site (45-GH-15), a late Holocene coastal site in Grays Harbor, Washington. We find that contemporary beached bird data are closer to replicating the human hunting hypothesis as compared to the human scavenging hypothesis, as >75% of the 19,599 carcasses in the COASST dataset had a combination of head, wings and legs. This result, and the similarity in taxonomic distribution between our contemporary beached bird data and Minard assemblage, suggests that indigenous peoples may have used scavenging as a viable means of resource acquisition in the past. Use of contemporaneous beached bird data may provide zooarchaeology with a statistically defensible baseline of information on the phenology, abundance and condition of bird carcasses.