Abstract - The Bones of the Beast: Resolving Questions of Faunal Assemblage Formation Process Through Actualistic Research

Burgett, Galen Royce. 1990. The Bones of the Beast: Resolving Questions of Faunal Assemblage Formation Processes Through Actualistic Research. PhD Dissertation. University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM. 394 p.


Archaeologists have increasingly relied on actualistic research for developing methods to recognize the differential contributions of hominid and nonhominid agents in the formation of archaeological faunal assemblages. These studies have been significant in the development of various hypotheses concerning the scavenging and hunting behavior of Plio-Pleistocene hominids. Many of the actualistic studies have focused on the bone accumulating and modifying behavior of extant carnivores, but have not developed controlled data sets to use in comparative analysis with archaelogical cases. Furthermore, these studies have been focused primarily on the proportional representation of anatomical elements as diagnostic aids with little attention paid to other variables, such as state of skeletal articulation, site spatial properties, intensity of carnivore gnawing, and the behavioral ecology of the predator-prey species involved. The purpose of this study was to examine the effects of coyote (Canis latrans) scavenging of bison (Bison bison) and elk (Cervus elaphus) carcasses in Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota. The Wind Cave National Park data provided a high level of control on the variables of time since death, age, sex, and weight of the coyote scavenged bison and elk mortality sites. This control was used as a basis for pattern recognition analysis of anatomical element representation, skeletal articulation, scavenge-site spatial properties, and bone breakage and gnawing produced by the coyotes.

The results of the pattern recognition study revealed several aspects of carnivore scavenging not well documented in the current actualistic literature. Transport and destruction of prey species bones is largely determined by the size/weight ratio of predator and prey animals. The size/weight factor is mitigated by the behavior ecology of the predator species and the continued scavenging of carcasses after the primary consumption event produces further bone transport, disarticulation, and destruction. This information is critical to arguments concerning the nature of access that early hominids had for scavenging large mammal carcasses. Disarticulation of carcasses was influenced more by secondary scavenging than primary consumption. Forelimbs were found to be disarticulated and tranported from the mortality sites early in the process of primary consumption. Hindlimb elements were the target of secondary scavenging even after the soft tissue had been consumed. Spatial distributions of bones at the mortality sites were found to be sensitive to whether the carcasses had undergone only primary consumption or had also been subjected to secondary scavenging. Coyote gnawing of the bison and elk bones is quantified revealing the strong influence of the general and marrow utility indices on the types of elements gnawed and the intensity of destruction.

Finally, the anatomical element representation of the Wind Cave National Park elk mortality sites is compared to the red deer bone assemblage from Layer VIII of the French archaeological site of Abri Vaufrey. The agents of bone accumulation in Layer VIII at Abri Vaufrey are believed to be the dhole (Cuon alpinus), a medium sizes carnivore similar to the coyote, and Acheulian period hominids. Results of the comparison indicate that hominids played a small part in the accumulation of the red deer bones. Rear limbs appear to have been the target of hominid scavenging and transport from mortality sites to Abri Vaufrey.

Overall, the study of coyote scavenging has provided an extensive data base useful for comparative analysis with other actualistic cases as well as archaelological faunal assemblages. The methods developed here for measuring skeletal completeness, skeletal articulation, site structure, and carnivore gnawing are useful for both the actualistic study of carnivore behavior and diagnosing the agents of bone modification and accumulation in archaeological assemblages.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

26611 US Highway 385
Hot Springs, SD 57747


(605) 745-4600

Contact Us