Prey body size generates bias for human and avian agents: Cautions for interpreting small game assemblages

Publication Name

Journal of Archaeological Science


Identifying the accumulating agent(s) of small animal assemblages at archaeological sites is challenging given the range of behaviors, skeletal plans, and body sizes of prey species as well as the range of potential predators. Although mammalian carnivores, raptors, and humans are considered typical predators of small game, there are many contexts—especially in island ecosystems—where humans and raptors are the primary agents for small animal assemblages in the absence of mammalian carnivores. Moreover, smaller animals tend to range in body sizes in these geographically restricted ecosystems. This study aims to broadly explore: 1) how small animal body size affects the taphonomic signature(s) of human and avian predation; and 2) how human and avian-generated small game assemblages compare with one another. To investigate these questions, this study compared the resulting taphonomic patterns of small animal predation by raptors and humans using data collected during a controlled-feeding experiment and an observational study, respectively. In the controlled-feeding experiment, deceased laboratory rats (Rattus norvegicus domestica) (50–500 g) were fed to two Milky Eagle Owls (Ketupa lacteus), one King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), and two Lappet-Faced Vultures (Torgos tracheliotos). In the observational study, we explored how humans processed various species of small prey ranging in body mass (80–5000 g) by analyzing anthropogenic modifications (i.e., cutmarks, tooth marks, burning). The resulting small animal assemblages were analyzed post-consumption for skeletal element representation, fragmentation and breakage patterns, and bone surface modifications. Results show that small prey body size significantly affects pre-depositional patterning in terms of skeletal element survival, butchering intensities, and cutmark frequencies. Furthermore, our experimentally generated assemblages show that breakage, fragmentation, and element relative abundance patterns can be used to distinguish between human and avian-accumulated assemblages in the archaeological record.

Open Access Status

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Funding Sponsor

National Science Foundation



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