The study of the way people and animals interact in a particular zoocultural system, ethnozoology seeks appropriate cultural definitions for animals as economic, symbolic, and ritual markers in a society. To study communities and their animals in the past, ethnozoology follows ethnoarchaeology in observing how modern societies use animals to discern patterns of behavior. From this, appropriate models are constructed against which the archaeological record can be tested. Because much ethnozoology has been directed to revealing how in the past people produced animals and animal products, it has focused its research on modern pastoral societies. The limitations of ethnoarchaeology in general have applied here: extinct cultural processes cannot be found through ethnographic analogy. Its potential to inform, however, is great, if appropriate examples are chosen. In the ancient Near East, the range of animals (sheep, goat, cattle, pig, donkey, camel) exploited for food and labor was small and has not changed appreciably for much of the region—with the possible exception of the increased use of domestic chicken and the decrease, since late antiquity, in the use of pig. The great difference between ancient and modern stock is the introduction of improved breeds since World War II. However, because such animals are found only in the most sophisticated centers, sophisticated breeding techniques do not confer a substantial increase in product potential.
To study animal production systems, ethnoarchaeologists have lived with modern pastoral societies and learned much about how their management choices are influenced by environmental, social, political, and economic factors. These field studies have contributed enormously to models of the domestication process. Ethnozoological research also concerns the mechanisms for the distribution of animal products. Both ethnographic and ethnohistoric records have been evaluated to produce models of the kinds of animals—by age, sex, and class—that are manipulated by central political authorities and markets. Together these studies have produced a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between the “desert and the sown” and the significance of pastoral resources in the construction of political and economic power. They have been significant in the evaluation of the extensive cuneiform record of centralized animal management. Another aspect is the study of cuisine, an ethnographic understanding of cooking and meal presentation in different social settings. This has proved beneficial in interpreting archaeological data at the household level. A final ethnoarchaeological aspect is actualistic studies of taphonomy (the study of processes that affect remains between their deposition and recovery). Bones are subject to numerous biases—that is, to processes associated with burial that differentially destroy them. Experimental research has provided techniques for minimizing the distortion these biases might bring to the historical interpretation of archaeological materials.
Ethnozoology also refers to the way people conceptualize animals. The study of folk taxonomy, a subdiscipline of cognitive anthropology, has revealed universal patterns in the way folk categorize and group animals. Because the basic level in studying animal production systems is predicated on animals as scientific categories that may have little or no intersection with the folk category, any complete understanding of how such a system functioned must comprehend both. The underlying psychology of folk taxa and their arrangements explicates the similarities and differences between folk and scientific systems. In studying the past, folk taxonomic principles can usefully be applied to ancient texts to facilitate a more accurate identification of animal terms. For example, philologists translating ancient animal terms would try to use contextual clues about morphology and behavior to match with a modern animal identified as a Linnaean category in a scientific classification. While this is a proper route to identification on one level, few philologists have understood modern zoological classification well enough to use it effectively: many times a term is equated with a modern species when there is insufficient evidence to make such a judgment, or when the folk category is, in fact, closer to a higher-level scientific grouping. In most instances, there has been little recognition that the ancients had no concept of Linnaean categories, and so only one side of the equation was revealed. The starting point of all “ethno-” study is to discover culturally conditioned units for investigation. Textual evidence can provide important ethnozoological data when critically evaluated.
- Atran, Scott. Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science. Cambridge, 1990. Penetrating study of the universal patterns underlying the cognition and arrangement of animate, as opposed to inanimate, objects and their influence on modern studies of natural science.
- Aurenche, Olivier, ed. Nomads and sédentaires: Perspectives ethnoarchéologiques. Centre Jean Palerne, Mémoires, 4. Paris, 1984. Important detailed studies of communities in Syria and Iraq.
- Berlin, Brent, et al. “General Principles of Classification and Nomenclature in Folk Biology.” American Anthropologist 75 (1973): 214–242. Major initial statement of the principles of folk classification.
- Berlin, Brent. Ethnobiological Classification: Principles of Categorization of Plants and Animals in Traditional Societies. Princeton, 1992. Incorporates Berlin's many studies of ethnobiological classification and presents fresh insights into his pioneering theories. It will stand for many years as the seminal work in the field of folk classification.
- Cribb, Roger. Nomads in Archaeology. Cambridge, 1991. Important ethnoarchaeological study of nomads in Turkey and Iran with broad utility in the construction of models for the ancient Near East.
- Kramer, Carol. Village Ethnoarchaeology: Rural Iran in Archaeological Perspective. New York, 1982. Pioneering study of the implications of the characteristics of a village in Iran for archaeological reconstructions.
- Watson, Patty Jo. Archaeological Ethnography in Western Iran. Tucson, 1979. Important details about animal management in a sedentary society.