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ARCHÉologie du poisson.

30 ans d’archéo-ichtyologie au cnrs

Hommage aux travaux de Jean Desse et Nathalie Desse-Berset
XXVIIIe rencontres internationales d’archéologie et d’histoire d’Antibes
Sous la direction de P. Béarez, S. Grouard et B. Clavel
Éditions APDCA, Antibes, 2008

Taphonomic processes and human

accumulations of fish remains at Palaeolithic
sites in Europe. Grotto di Pozzo: a case study
Hannah Russ(1)

Résumé. Les restes de poissons trouvés à Grotto di Pozzo, une caverne en Italie centrale
d’occupation datée d’environ 14 500 ans cal. avant le présent, ont été analysés dans le but
d’identifier l’agent d’accumulation et faciliter la compréhension de la subsistance et de
la mobilité du chasseur-cueilleur du Paléolithique supérieur. Des outils en pierre et des
restes de faune avec des traces de découpe ont été également récupérés du site et datent
de cette époque, ce qui indique que les groupes humains ont utilisé le site à cette époque.
Cependant, les mouvements saisonniers des chasseurs-cueilleurs donnent l’occasion à
une faune piscivore d’occuper les sites, ce qui peut potentiellement créer ou modifier
l’origine des restes de poisson sur un site.
Mots-clés. Os de poisson, Paléolithique, Italie, grotte, découpe de poissons, processus

Abstract. Fish remains from Grotta di Pozzo, a cave site in central Italy dating to c. 14,500
cal. BP, were analysed with the aim of identifying accumulation agents to aid current
understanding of Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer subsistence and mobility. Stone tools
and faunal remains with cut marks have also been recovered from the site and dated to this
period, indicating that human groups used the site at this time. The seasonal movement of
hunter-gatherers, however, provides the opportunity for sites to be occupied by piscivorous
faunas that can potentially create or modify fish remains at a site.
Keywords. Fish bones, Palaeolithic, Italy, cave, fish processing, taphonomy.
*    *
An increasing number of Palaeolithic sites in Europe are yielding fish remains;
this has resulted mainly from improved sampling and recovery techniques.
Identification and interpretation of these assemblages, however, are seriously
limited by difficulties in distinguishing anthropogenic thanatocoenoses from those
produced by other faunal species and natural processes. This problem is enhanced
in Palaeolithic archaeology due to the nature of hunter-gatherer mobility where
sites are often used seasonally but may also be abandoned for many years. This

(1)  Division of Archaeological, Geographical and Environmental Sciences, University of

Bradford, Bradford, West Yorkshire, BD7 1DP, UK <>

H. Russ

allows animals to inhabit locations vacated by human groups, as such, cultural and
natural materials may appear within the same contexts. Associating fish remains
with human occupation based on artefact presence, usually stone tools, can lead to
incorrect interpretation of human subsistence strategies and is a link that should
not be assumed.
Fish remains from Grotta di Pozzo, a cave site in central Italy dating to 14,500
cal. BP, were analysed with the aim of establishing agents of accumulation to aid
current understanding of Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer subsistence and
mobility in the area.

In total 5,793 fragments of fish bone were analysed, of these 2,543 could be
identified to species level. Ribs and spines represented a further 2,150 fragments,
leaving 1,100 unidentifiable. All identifiable remains from the site represented a
single species, Salmo trutta (brown trout). The assemblage was dominated by cranial
elements, especially those of the oromandibular region of the branchiocranium
that bear teeth (fig. 1). The glossohyal provides a minimum number of individuals
(MNI) of 133. Based on total number of vertebrae (1,624), and given that the average
specimen of Salmo trutta has 59 vertebrae (Morales, 1984, p. 46), a maximum MNI
of only 28 can be calculated. If vertebrae are separated into five morphotypes as
suggested by Morales (1984, p. 46), MNI is reduced to only 24 (based on 609 type
II vertebrae at 26 per specimen). Element representation patterns do not fit those
associated with digestion (Nicholson, 1993) or bone density (Butler, Chatters,
1994) and so may result from human modification in the form of butchery.

0.1-25 50.1-75

% Element Presence

0 25.1-50 75.1-100

Fig.  1. Cranial element representation at Grotta di Pozzo.

Glossohyal and vomer fall in the 75.1-100 % element presence.
Base image from Gregory (1933).

Taphonomic processes and human accumulations of fish remains



0 1m


0 16-100 251-600

Cave boundary Drip line 1m2

excavation unit 1-15 101-250 1000-2000
Fish bone density per m2

Fig. 2. Plan of Grotta di Pozzo showing spatial distribution of fish remains. Base image from Mussi
et al. (2004).

Spatial distribution of remains indicated two main areas of deposition with

no remains recovered from northern areas of the site (fig. 2). When considered
stratigraphically, the spatial distribution shows recurring deposition of fish remains
in the H9, H10 and L7 areas. There were no significant differences between the
spatial distributions of cranial and post-cranial elements.
Vertebrae dimensions were compared to modern specimens to estimate fish
total length (TL). At Grotta di Pozzo, fish represent a narrow size range between
29.3 and 41.6 cm TL (95  % confidence). Seasonal assessment by growth ring
analysis did not provide sufficient data due to vertebral bone loss.

Based on current taphonomic knowledge, this assemblage may be attributed
to human activity. The element representation pattern is not comparable with Russ 02
those associated with bone density or digestion. It may suggest that this site was
used to partially process fish by head removal, perhaps for fish to be preserved
or transported, an activity often documented for larger fish in ethnographic
accounts of hunter-gatherers in many parts of the world (e.g., Scheffer, 1704;
Gifford, 1965). However, there are still many depositional and post-depositional
processes that are not understood or that have not been considered. It is especially
important to consider processes that may produce assemblage characteristics
that parallel those produced by human modification. One area that requires
investigation is the ways in which animals can accumulate and deposit fish in
archaeological contexts.
Preliminary experimental studies at University of Bradford have provided data
indicating that basic fish processing with stone tools can leave diagnostic traces

H. Russ

on fish skeletal remains. Rather than sustaining individual cut marks, which are
often seen on butchered mammal and bird remains, fish bones can become
characteristically sectioned. This is supported by recently published research by
Willis et al. (2008) which highlights that cut and chop marks on fish bone may be
missed in archaeological assemblages as they occur on skeletal elements that are
not identified to low taxonomic level (such as ribs and spines) and therefore are
observed for less time during identification.
To address the problem of identifying agents of accumulation at archaeological
sites, especially caves, faecal and pellet samples from animals that use caves and
eat fish will be collected. Samples will be processed to recover surviving skeletal
elements that will then be analysed under a scanning electron microscope (SEM).
SEM results will be compared to establish criteria for recognising material resulting
from activities of specific animals. This research looks to develop new criteria for
distinguishing natural from cultural accumulations of fish remains to improve
understanding of hominin subsistence during the Palaeolithic.

I would like to thank my supervisors, Dr A. K. G. Jones and Dr R. E. Donahue
at the University of Bradford and Professor M. Mussi, University of Rome “La
Sapienza”. Also to Adrian A. Evans, Lizzy Heywood and Louise Outram. This
research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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salmon bone assemblages, Journal of Archaeological Science, 21, p. 413-424.
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Sacaramento State College.
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Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 23, p. 75-481.
Morales A., 1984.– A study on the representativity and taxonomy of the fish faunas from
two Mousterian sites in northern Spain with special reference to the trout (Salmo trutta
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la Recherche Scientifique, p. 41-59.
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