Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Taxonomic Identifications
and Faunal Summaries:

What Should We Be Including in Our Faunal Reports?

Virginia L. Butler and R. Lee Lyman

Most faunal analysts asking questions about human subsistence or paleoecology would agree that taxonomic identifications form the cornerstone of their research. There is, however, little agreement about what constitutes an adequate or appropriate summary of taxonomic identifications, despite some discussion of this in the literature. Are simple lists of taxonomic frequencies sufficient? Should data summaries include explicit criteria used to assign specimens to taxon? What approaches to reporting best advance science and ensure an adequate archive of information for future researchers? Given the tremendous number of faunal studies generated each year and the range of detail provided in reports, we assembled a panel of faunal specialists during the SAA 60th Annual Meeting (May 4-7, 1995) to discuss basic questions of adequacy in faunal data reporting. The eight individuals who participated represent diverse research interests spanning multiple geographic regions and temporal periods, and were instructed to prepare brief remarks addressing the questions posed above. Subsequent discussion among the partipants and the audience revealed certain common interests and understandings of the wide range of issues involved in basic reporting of zooarchaeological data.

Co-organizer Virginia L. Butler (Portland State University) began by underscoring the range of variation in reporting faunal data. She noted that while the presentation of taxonomic abundance data was basic to most reports, the lack of explicit mention of skeletal parts identified and morphometric and other criteria used to assign archaeological specimens to taxon compromised the value of such data because it could not be evaluated by other analysts. Jonathan C. Driver (Simon Fraser University), author of an important paper covering issues of faunal identification that was circulated to all participants prior to the meeting, remarked on how we might increase the validity and reliability of identifications. To gauge comparability across analysts, Driver suggested circulating a sample of bones among colleagues to determine the range of identifications that might be produced. How much variation would we find if multiple analysts identified the same bones? To assess reliability, he advocated re-identification of a sample of specimens some time after the original analysis to compare the results.

Elizabeth J. Reitz (University of Georgia) expressed concern over the final disposition of standard data (e.g., epiphyseal fusion, tooth eruption, age/sex, bone measurements) recorded during identification. Because editors often were reluctant to include large tables of basic faunal data in reports, particularly of refereed articles, she suggested that important information was not being archived. Donald K. Grayson (University of Washington) noted that analysts tend to have different research interests and objectives and that it would be difficult (if desirable) to advocate that a "standard" set of data, of the sort suggested by Reitz, be included in faunal reports. Rather, he stressed that one of our utmost concerns should be the careful curation of faunal materials. We need to ensure that collections are well-maintained for the use of future researchers. Grayson then brought the discussion back to Butler's remarks on the value of including explicit criteria for taxonomic assignments in faunal reports. He pointed out that not only do such descriptions permit evaluation, they are labor saving, allowing readers to use the published reports in their own research without having to expend time personally developing such criteria. Russell W. Graham (Illinois State Museum) emphasized the necessity of including explicit criteria used to make taxonomic identifications. Geographic location, morphometry, or age of the specimen, along with the taxonomy to which a specimen might be assigned, all influence our identifications; such information, clearly presented in publications, will allow other analysts to evaluate an identification and accept or reject that identification in light of their own knowledge.

Mary C. Stiner (University of Arizona) reiterated Grayson's view that the research problem dictates the approach to analysis and subsequent data that are included in a faunal study. She pointed out that if editors are reluctant to include large tables or extensive descriptions because of space limitations, researchers must be persuasive, explaining how such materials are relevant and necessary to the study. She also noted that a clearly marked trail of analytic decisions would increase the long-term value of research. Kathy Cruz-Uribe (Northern Arizona) suggested that researchers be explicit about criteria used to assign bovid remains (and those from other mammals) to body-size categories. While agreeing that presenting criteria for taxonomic assignment is useful (and essential for extralimital and extinct species), she noted that at some level we have to take most published faunal identifications on faith. Co-organizer R. Lee Lyman (University of Missouri) summarized many of the previous statements and reiterated that data critical to a research question must be reported in detail, rather than in summary form. He also underscored the point that faunal remains should be treated like other artifacts in terms of their analytical and curatorial importance.

Subsequent discussion between forum participants and the audience raised several other issues. It was suggested that reports include information on the analytic or chronological units to which the faunal materials are assigned to allow other researchers to use the data for synthetic studies and that labeled identifications be included with curated specimens to assist future analysis and evaluation.

The goal of the forum was not to develop a list of rules or standards to which faunal analysts should be held. As many of the participants and members of the audience noted, there is no such thing as "standard" data in faunal data reporting. On the other hand, a general consensus emerged that more detailed discussion of analytic decisions behind taxonomic assignments as well as other measures would make our research results easier to evaluate, more comparable, and ultimately more useful to ourselves and other archaeologists and paleontologists.

Virginia L. Butler teaches in the Department of Anthropology at Portland State University, Oregon, and R. Lee Lyman is with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Missouri, Columbia.


Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page