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Vol 57 No. 10 : May 18, 2005
Vol 57 No. 10 | May 18, 2005

Cannon Digs Animal Bones


Prehistoric deer and camel bones tell a story about a lost world to Anthropology's Michael Cannon.

Cannon, a Long Beach resident who joined the university as a full-time lecturer in 2003 before going tenure track as an assistant professor in 2004, is an expert in zooarchaeology, or the analysis of animal bones from archaeological sites. His research interests include evolutionary ecology, the beginnings of agriculture in the American Southwest, Paleoindian subsistence, and the Ice Age environments of North America. 

The topic of his doctoral dissertation was a study of animal bones from pithouse and pueblo sites in the Mimbres Valley of southwestern New Mexico, which were occupied between about A.D. 400 and 1400. People in the Mimbres Valley lived in settled villages as farmers, while also hunting deer, antelope and rabbits. “They caught lots and lots of bunnies,” he said. “I looked at tens of thousands of bunny bones.”

He suggests that, as time went on, human predation reduced the abundances of large-bodied prey like deer and antelope in the Mimbres region, leading people there to put more time and effort into hunting smaller animals like rabbits and into growing domesticated crops like corn.

His most recent paper, co-authored with David Meltzer from Dallas' Southern Methodist University and appearing in Quaternary Science Reviews, is titled “Early Paleoindian foraging: Examining the faunal evidence for large mammal specialization and regional variability in prey choice.” It addresses the subsistence practices of the earliest known human inhabitants of North America, who are often called the Clovis people, named for a site in eastern New Mexico that has yielded spear points dating to about 11,000 BCE.

North American archaeologists have spent much effort debating whether Early Paleoindian foragers were specialized hunters of megafauna (including extinct animals like mammoths) or whether they pursued more generalized subsistence strategies. One of the biggest misconceptions about Paleoindians is that they did nothing but hunt mammoths.

“The Clovis people did hunt mammoths,” he said. “But, as my colleague David Meltzer likes to say, your average Clovis hunter may have killed a mammoth just once and then spent the rest of his life talking about it.”

Cannon and Meltzer argue that the evidence provided by animal bones gives little support for the idea that Early Paleoindian foragers specialized in the hunting of mammoths, giant sloths or saber-tooth tigers. It does appear, however, that there was considerable variability in Early Paleoindian prey choice across the continent, which was likely related to variability in the environments inhabited by different groups.

“I reviewed all the data about what Clovis people hunted and looked at every site I could find,” he said. Following this systematic review of the kinds of animals that had been killed and/or butchered at various sites, Cannon and Meltzer discovered, among other things, that there is as much or more evidence of people hunting smaller animals than there is evidence of people hunting megafauna. “Mammoth bones are bigger and easier to find and they have received most of the attention from archaeologists, but there is a lot of evidence to show that Early Paleoindians pursued a wide variety of other prey, including deer, rabbits and even small rodents,” he said.

He spent part of the summer of 2004 at a site near Ely, Nev., which has been dated in earlier work to about 11,000 BCE, or right at the end of the Ice Age, and at which the remains of extinct camels and horses have been found. There, nine archaeology undergraduate and graduate students from CSULB joined him to use the archaeology program's ground-penetrating unit, which enabled them to map the subsurface stratigraphy of the site without having to dig. He will be returning to eastern Nevada in the summer of 2005 to run a longer six-week field school. This course will provide CSULB students with intensive, hands-on training in archaeological field methods, ranging from the basics of survey and excavation to the use of the CSULB Archaeology Program's high-tech mapping and remote sensing equipment.

Cannon was raised in Salt Lake City and received twin bachelor's degrees from the University of Utah, one in English and the other in anthropology. He received his Ph.D. in archaeology from the University of Washington in 2001. After that, he spent a year teaching at Hamilton College in upstate New York and another at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The main thing he hopes his students take away with them is an appreciation for how to use the inanimate bones and stones of the archaeological record, together with a strong theoretical framework, to develop a scientific understanding of human-environment interactions in the past. If he can also help to give them an appreciation for the desert west, so much the better.  

“I got into archaeology in the first place because it allowed me to spend long periods working outside in the Great Basin and the American Southwest,” he said. “I'd be perfectly happy to work there for the rest of my life.”

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