There is a common misconception that Ancestral Pueblo people rarely ate fish. Research from Jonathan Dombrosky, adjunct assistant professor at The University of New Mexico Department of Anthropology, shows that not only did fish become a more common part of their diet but, like anyone who enjoys fishing, the bigger the fish, the better.
The article recently chosen for the editor's spotlight in the Journal of Archaeological Science is titled Body Size from Unconventional Specimens: A 3D Geometric Morphometrics Approach to Fishes from Ancestral Pueblo Contexts. Co-authors of the study are UNM professor Thomas Turner, curator of the division of fishes at The Museum of Southwestern Biology; UNM associate professor Emily Lena Jones; and Alexandra Harris, who graduated from UNM in 2021 and is now a student in the archaeology department of Cambridge University in England. Dombrosky received his Ph.D. in 2021 and is now doing post-doctoral work at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado. His dissertation work—funded by a NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Award—focused on Ancestral Pueblo fishing strategies in the Middle Rio Grande region of New Mexico during the late pre-Hispanic period.
The article uses 3D scans of modern fishes to estimate the body size of archaeological fishes, and there are two main points to this research.
“The first is that we can use 3D scanning technology to estimate the body size of past animals from their fragmented bones. Not only can we do this, but it is a robust way to measure such specimens that is comparable to more traditional methods,” Dombrosky explained. “The second point is that we can use this new method to reconstruct the body size of fishes recovered from Ancestral Pueblo sites around the Albuquerque area. In doing this, we can better understand why people made the decisions they did to eat the foods they did.”
The scans were used to calculate body size of the fish from zooarchaeological remains. Then the procedure was used to evaluate whether Ancestral Pueblo people caught larger than average fishes during the late pre-Hispanic period (ca. 1300–1600 CE) in the Middle Rio Grande region of New Mexico and use these data to evaluate the connection between changing environment and Pueblo fishing decisions, according to the research paper.
Specimens were from Pottery Mound Pueblo, a large village of approximately 400 rooms located near Los Lunas and known for its distinctive kiva murals; Kuaua Pueblo, a massive village site of around 1200 rooms located next to the Rio Grande near Bernalillo; Chamisal Pueblo, a smaller site with approximately 200 rooms in Los Ranchos, Albuquerque; and Hummingbird Pueblo located near the Pottery Mound Pueblo.
The estimation of fish body size—and animal body size in general ̶—is a gigantic area of biological and ecology research too, Dombrosky noted. “The size of animals relates to so many crucial aspects of their lives: What prey can this animal eat? What predators can eat this animal? How did this animal physically move around? How did it reproduce? What was its metabolism like? At what rate did it grow throughout its life? These types of questions have huge implications for understanding the evolution and ecology of animals and ecosystems.”
Using a 3D scanner made available by the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, Harris scanned hundreds of both modern and archaeological fish bones, including various bones found in the skull, along the vertebrae, and in the pelvis from each specimen.
“Yes, fish have pelvic bones!” Dombrosky said.
“As someone who mainly does research on human evolution, it was fun to take a different perspective in looking at subsistence strategies of the past—and gain a better appreciation of fish anatomy. I think the paper has the potential to make a significant impact in the field of zooarchaeology when analyzing fragmented specimens but may also shift assumptions about the human past specifically from an energetics perspective when looking at how populations fed themselves,” Harris said.
Archaeologists are more concerned with why people made decisions to eat different foods in the different social and environmental circumstances they find themselves in through time, Dombrosky said.
“Our work is important because it debunks a few myths that Ancestral Pueblo people did not fish and they also did not eat fish. What we’ve shown here is that indeed Ancestral Pueblo people likely ate fish, and they ate large healthy fish. Fishes were targeted when fish communities were healthy and stable. So, not only did Ancestral Pueblo people fish but the reasons why the fished were complex and included elements of resource sustainability. This is an important idea that archaeologists could not have proposed if we followed the conventional ‘fish aren’t important’ story.”
The study of Ancestral Pueblo fishing, and desert fishing in general, has so much more to tell us, Dombrosky said.
“We’ve only scratched the surface. It could lead researchers to a better, deeper understanding of why our modern societies continue to practice this extremely environmentally impactful behavior today and what we can do to make it more sustainable.”