It’s a Game Old Bird

This morning, an article in Nature announced to the world a newly discovered early bird – Aurornis (or click here for the summary, here for the BBC summary). This bird (a rather snazzy artist’s impression is included below) seems to have existed around 160 million years ago, that is around 10 million years earlier than Archaeopteryx. From my, distant, perspective, 10 million years is roughly contemporary once you reach the Jurassic. The authors of this paper plainly disagree though and suggest that Aurornis xui is an ancestor of Archaeopteryx.

That’s significant. For those of you that don’t keep up with the dynamic, catty, world of bird taxonomy, Archaeopteryx was fairly recently relegated by many from avian to non-avian dinosaur status (yes, recent work suggests that birds are so closely related to dinosaurs that we now have to use the cumbersome equivalent of the ‘non-human ape’ favoured by primatologists). So, probably the most famous ‘first bird’ is now a bird again; everyone can rest easy (for now – I fully expect a response paper in the next issue disputing this taxonomy).

Source: Nature article linked in text above


So, what does all this mean for someone who specialises in the late Quaternary? Not a lot really, it’s an interesting diversion from the day-job but all this squabbling scarcely affects bird research in the Pleistocene and Holocene except for the uncertainty surrounding much of the taxonomy of our modern avifauna. I fully expect it to be another twenty years or so before a consensus is reached as to living bird taxonomy, let alone fossil; in practical terms, for now, perhaps I need to revise my ‘earliest bird’ date in my teaching hand-outs?

Speaking of which, I’ll again be teaching the ‘birds’ class in the University of Sheffield Introduction to Zooarchaeology shortcourse in two and a half weeks’ time. Anyone who might be interested in attending that course is encouraged to book soon – there are one or two places still available as I write this but they’re filling up fast. For more information and to book a place see the course website or else contact one of us (course staff) directly. Finally, in a partly contrived way of making this post more relevant to the ‘blog, I’m including a free sampler of the course here! After the break you’ll find an extract from my hand-out for the birds class.

lion skeleton


Birds in Zooarchaeology

There are c.9,500 species of birds in the world and over 200 in the UK (precise figures are hard to establish due to taxonomy and migratory & vagrant species), compared with 4,300 and 60 mammals, respectively. Birds evolved much more recently than mammals (around 160 million years ago as against 225mya; the Neornithes, the sub-class which contains all modern birds, evolved around 85mya) and DNA research suggesting that birds are far more closely related to each other than we previously realised led some researchers to call for a drastic overhaul of bird taxonomy in 1990. More recent (refined) molecular, fossil and anatomical evidence is beginning to resolve some of these disputes but for the time being no single taxonomy is recognised universally; meaning that the taxonomy of several species, genera and even families is currently much disputed. For these reasons, it can be appreciated that secure identifications based on skeletal remains present a challenge to the zooarchaeologist. The general principles of identification and recording remain the same as for mammals, however, and indeed most of the bones are analogous in function and structure, even if there are notable differences.

Birds interact with humans in several different ways – as food, as guards, as objects of beauty, as sources of secondary products (eggs and feathers), as commensals, as pets, as hunting companions and as pest controllers – and to some degree their presence in a zooarchaeological assemblage can reflect any or all of these different roles. Interpretations of these roles are usually based on analogy with ethnographic or historical records and some direct observations such as butchery marks on the bones, medullary bone or the presence of egg shell in the assemblage.

Medullary bone and eggs are reliable indicators of seasonality, as are migratory birds but we need to consider whether or not migration patterns may have changed when using these species as seasonal indicators. More generally, all wild birds can be ecological indicators when interpreting past environments and the records themselves are useful sources for biogeographical research.

Domestic birds are usually less important than domestic mammals for food but the domestic fowl, Gallus domesticus, (there is, oddly, no specific English word for this bird: ‘chicken’ technically refers to a female domestic fowl under the age of one year; ‘hens’ are the female of any bird species and ‘chook’ is not widely recognised outside of Australia and the UK: all of which clearly shows the need for using binomial classifications in scientific literature) is the most numerous higher vertebrate in the UK and on earth. The importance of birds as food, then, should not be underestimated and wild birds in particular, as food or not, can also be important indicators of status.


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Tomek, T. & Bocheński, Z.M., 2009. A Key for the Identification of Domestic Bird Bones in Europe: Galliformes and Columbiformes,. Institute of Systematics and Evolution of Animals, Polish Academy of Sciences, Kraków.


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