Butchery of Fish

Fish, along with other aquatic resources, have played an important role in human biological, social and cultural evolution. Fundamental to our understanding of this role is the way that people have procured, processed and consumed fish, evidence for which manifests itself archaeologically in the form of burning, cut marks, body-part frequency and other patterns. However, despite being relatively common on archaeological mammal and bird bones, cut marks are rare on archaeological fish bones. This may be attributed to a number of factors, including butchery practices, taphonomic processes and fish anatomy, but many of these reasons remain speculative. For this reason the authors of a recent paper (Willis et al, 2008.) set out to perform a series of experiments designed to evaluate whether such practices would leave cut marks or other signatures on fish bones.

Experiments showed that cut marks resulting from butchery were common, both were stone and metal tools. Hand-held stone tools generally resulted in more cut marks than butchery using a metal knife. These cut marks were distributed on a limited number of elements. However, these were mostly the vertebral neural and haemal spines, transverse processes, ribs and pterygiophores. As it is not uncommon for spines and processes to break of vertebral centra post-depositionally, this might explain why they are often over-looked in faunal assemblages. Also, the majority of cut marks tended to be shallow and small; even on fresh, clean bone a magnifying glass was required to identify them. Fish bone, being less robust than mammal bone, could be subject to taphonomic processes than eradicated all evidence of butchery. It is, therefore, suggested by the authors that further experiments to address the influence of post-depositional processes on the preservation of cut marks on fish bone would be of value.

Reference: Willis, LM, Eren, MI, and Rick, TC. 2008. Does butchering fish leave cut marks? Journal of Archaeological Science 35: 1438-1444

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