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Demography and Mortality Profiles

Marks of Domestication


Horse Herd of Nomadic Kazak Herders in Xinjiang China

Horse Herd of Nomadic Kazak Herders in Xinjiang China

China Photos / Getty Images

Building and examining a mortality profile of an archaeological assemblage of animal bones, specifically the demographic spread of the animals represented, is one way that archaeologists identify the effects of domestication. A mortality profile is created by counting the frequency of male and female animals, and the age of animals when they died. The age of an animal might be determined from evidence such as length of long bone or wear on teeth, and the sex of an animal from size or structural differences. Then a mortality table is constructed showing the distribution of how many females versus males there are in the assemblage, and how many old animals versus young.

The hunting of wild animals generally results in collecting the weakest individuals in a herd, the youngest, oldest or sickest animals are the ones most easily killed in a hunting situation. But in domestic situations, juvenile animals may be more likely to survive to maturity--so you might expect fewer juveniles to be represented in an assemblage of domesticated animal bones.

The mortality profile of an animal population may also reveal culling patterns. One strategy used in herding cattle is to keep the females into maturity, so that you can get milk and future generations of cows. At the same time, the farmer might kill all but a few of the males for food, those few kept for breeding purposes. In that kind of animal bone assemblage, you would expect to find juvenile males but no juvenile females.

More Signs of Domestication

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