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Bugs, bones and hairballs

August 19, 2013

When working on a site like Nunalleq, it is easy to get blown away by the astonishing artefacts and to forget some of less-glamorous things the Ancient Yup’ik people left behind, such as food waste, butchery remains, parasites, off-cuts from hair and fur balls. As mundane as these things are, they are the very key to understanding the daily life of the people living on the site. As part of our digging strategy, we routinely collect different types of samples of biological remains that will be analyzed by specialists in zooarchaeology, isotope analysis, archaeoentomology and archaeobotany.

The zooarchaeological samples consist of buckets of sediments. Normally 60 litres are collected from each excavated context. These samples are the ones that need to be wet-screened in order to collect small faunal remains such as bones from fish and small rodents. Animal bones and other remains are not only recovered through wet-screening, as the larger bones of animals such as dogs, caribou, seal, bear and walrus are collected by hand during the excavation. These faunal remains will be analyzed by Edouard and allow a better understanding of the diet, butchery techniques and hunting strategies employed by the people who lived at Nunalleq, while also shedding light on the different uses they made of materials such as bone, antler and ivory.

We also collect samples to analyze plant and insect remains. Bags of 5 litres of sediment are collected from each excavated layer for this purpose, and these will need to be subsampled, or separated between the archaeobotanist and the archaeoentomologist, because the processing methods employed to recover plants and insects are different. To recover plant remains, we need to screen the sediment in water so that the plant material floats to the top and can be collected in geological sieves. A device called a ‘floatation machine’ is often used for this purpose. The technique employed to recover insect remains is similar to that used in archaeobotany, but the process requires the use of paraffin, which has a lower density than water and preferably bonds to insect exoskeletons, resulting in the separation of insects from the bulk of organic remains. While plants are mostly used to reconstruct diet (berry seeds) and plant uses (woven grass and plants materials used for flooring), insects are most useful to reconstruct past climate (beetles), the ecological conditions in and around the site as well as the hygiene of past people (lice, fleas, fly cocoons). The information obtained from plants and insects is highly complementary, and used together they can provide a powerful tool to better understand past daily life.

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Another really exciting thing we find at Nunalleq is animal fur and human hair. These tissues are very rarely preserved at archaeological sites and the information they contain is incredibly valuable for understanding how people and animals lived.

The method used to access this information is stable isotope analysis, which works on the basis that ‘you are what you eat’. The chemical composition of tissues such as bone, teeth, nails and hair reflects what an individual was eating and drinking at the time that tissue was formed, so by extracting and analysing the collagen and keratin in these tissues we can study past diet. This is important because it helps us to know more about what foods were available and the subsistence methods people used to survive, and also enables us to study the past ecology through the reconstruction of animal diet and food webs.

Bone is the most common tissue found in archaeological contexts, but it grows quite slowly so stable isotope data from bone will provide information about average diet over a period of 10 years or more. Hair, on the other hand, grows much more quickly (about 1cm a month) and does not change in its composition once it has formed. By analysing hair (and fur in the case of animals) we are able to get a much better ‘snap-shot’ of diet. If we find pieces of hair that are long enough we are even able to look at how a person or animal’s diet changed over the course of several months, by cutting the hair into 1cm pieces and analysing each segment separately. In environments such as this, where there is such a significant change in the climate between summer and winter, this can help tell us about the strategies people employed to cope with this degree of seasonal variation.

So you see, these little clumps of hair really are an incredible source of information! Even if they have occasionally been likened (very unfairly in my opinion!) to the bits of hair you pull out of the bathtub drain…

Human hair found at Nunalleq

Human hair found at Nunalleq

Ellen and Véro

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