The human environmental footprint is not only deep, but old.
Ancient traces of this footprint can be found in animal bones, shells, scales and antlers at archaeological sites. Together, these specimens tell the millennia-long story of how humans have hunted, domesticated and transported animals, altered landscapes and responded to environmental changes such as shifting temperatures and sea levels.
Now, that story is available digitally through a new open-access data platform known as ZooArchNet, which links records of animals across biological and archaeological databases.
Making these specimen records accessible digitally helps provide a long-term perspective on current biodiversity crises, such as animal extinction and habitat loss, and could lead to more informed conservation policies.
Zooarchaeological specimens can also provide insights into how, when, and why humans domesticated animals in the distant past. Research by anthropologist Erin Thornton of Washington State University and a colleague on the earliest uses of the Mexican domesticated turkey, the ancestor of modern domestic turkeys, highlights how motivations for raising animals can change over time.
“Our recent work suggests that these birds were first domesticated for their feathers and symbolic links to power and prestige, rather than as a source of food,” she said.