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Archaeobiology, the study of the biology of ancient times through archaeological materials, is a subspecialty of archaeology. It can be seen as a blanket term for paleobotany, animal osteology, zooarchaeology, microbiology, and many other sub-disciplines. Specifically, plant and animal remains are also called ecofacts. Sometimes these ecofacts can be left by humans and sometimes they can be naturally occurring. Archaeobiology tends to focus on more recent finds, so the difference between archaeobiology and palaeontology is mainly one of date: archaeobiologists typically work with more recent, non-fossilised material found at archaeological sites. Only very rarely are archaeobiological excavations performed at sites with no sign of human presence.
Flora and Fauna in Archaeology
The prime interest of paleobotany is to reconstruct the vegetation that people in the past would have encountered in a particular place and time. Plant studies have always been overshadowed by faunal studies because bones are more conspicuous than plant remains when excavating. Collection of plant remains could everything including pollen, soil, diatoms, wood, plant remains and phytoliths. Phytoliths are sediments and diatoms are water deposits. Each plant remain can tell the archaeologist different things about the environment during a certain time period. Animal remains were the first evidence used by 19th century archaeologists. Today, archaeologists use faunal remains as a guide to the environment. It helps archaeologists understand whether the fauna were present naturally or through activities of carnivores or people. Archaeologists deal with macrofauna and microfauna. Microfauna are better indicators of climate and environmental change than larger species. These can be as small as a bug or as big as a fish or bird. Macrofauna helps archaeologists build a picture of past human diet.
Bacteria and Protists in Archaeology
Bacteria and Protists form two separate animal kingdoms, but both are fairly similar when compared. Bacteria are prokaryotic microorganisms, while protists are a group of eukaryotic organisms. Because both are microorganisms, both fall under the study of microbiology and special techniques are required for archaeologists to even see them. Archaeologists, in order to find these microorganisms in a site, have to first take samples from the site and bring them in for lab analysis. Once in the lab, they can use equipment such as optical microscopes, in order to actually see evidence of micro organic remains. Archaeologists that look at these microorganisms do not actually find the living bacteria or protist, but instead find indentations left behind in material from where they had did. Depending on where the indentations were in the strata, archaeologists can determine the age of the microorganisms.
Paleomycology is the study of fungi in the fossil record. The study of past fungi can lead to the evolutionary past. Much of fungi are made up of parasites of animals, plants or insects. Most of the contemporary fungi resemble its ancestors, dating back over a million years ago. For example, “In the Dominican amber, a mosquito was found with several types of parasitic fungi growing on its outside cuticle. What is interesting is that the fungi resemble modern day fungi in class Trichomycetes, which are common gut-inhabiting zygomycetes of insects, but they differ from Trichomycetes in that the fungi are on the outside of the insect rather than the inside.” The study of ancient fungi can be used to track the evolution of fungi through millions of years.
Osteology in Archaeology
The study of osteology is a study of bones and can be a subdiscipline in archeology. Osteololgists in archeology reconstruct bones of humans or animals from the past to find more about the past civilizations. . Osteology is used in archaeology to determine the age, gender, and ethnicity of the remains. It is also helpful to rebuild past societies’ cultural background. Using the remains from the past can help modern archaeologist uncover the past from what they ate to their daily activities. This can help uncover the mysteries of past histories.
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