African Archaeological Review

, Volume 33, Issue 4, pp 353–361 | Cite as

Beware the Springbok in Sheep’s Clothing: How Secure Are the Faunal Identifications upon Which We Build Our Models?

  • K. Ann HorsburghEmail author
  • Jayson Orton
  • Richard G. Klein
Original Article


Lively debate surrounds the introduction of non-indigenous domestic livestock to southern Africa. Despite disagreements regarding process, the archaeological community agrees, with unusual unanimity, on the broad chronology. Indeed, the certainty with which the timing is known (admittedly within the limits of radiocarbon dating) has been celebrated, because with these underpinning data in hand, issues of process can be explored in a serious and empirically grounded manner. Recently published ancient DNA (aDNA) research in southern Africa now calls into question the reliability of many faunal identifications upon which this debate rests. These data build on earlier ecological data, suggesting that some faunal identifications at sites crucial to the debate may be unreliable. A number of morphologically identified domesticate bones were chosen for aDNA sequencing to explore the relationships among southern Africa’s early domestic stock. Unfortunately, a large proportion yielded DNA sequences indicating a wild origin. This led us to consider the potential scale of the problem and the implications for existing models regarding the introduction of herding to the subcontinent. The issue may originate largely from the optimistic identification of specimens retaining too few key morphological markers. We acknowledge that reconstructions of the past are likely to be biased by discarding potential zooarchaeological data through overly conservative identification. We argue, however, that the potential ramifications of building models on unreliable data are far greater than those of being forced to acknowledge gaps in our data and are calling for further research.


Zooarchaeology Data quality Ancient DNA Domestic stock 


Des discussions animées portent sur la question de l’introduction des animaux domestiques en Afrique australe. S’il existe des désaccords au sujet des processus d’introduction, la communauté archéologique s’accorde néanmoins dans son ensemble sur la chronologie de ces évènements, dans le cadre d’un consensus qui est plutôt inhabituel. Ces certitudes (certes dans le cadre des limites de datation radiocarbone) sont à l’origine de l’élaboration de scénarios rigoureux et empiriques. Toutefois, les dernières recherches sur des échantillons d’ADN anciens venant d’Afrique australe remettent en question la fiabilité de nombreuses identifications fauniques sur lesquelles repose le débat. Ces recherches se construisent sur d’anciennes données écologiques et suggèrent que certaines identifications d’espèces, dans des sites clés, seraient erronées. Un grand nombre d’os d’animaux domestiques identifiés sur des bases morphologiques ont été sélectionnés pour des séquençages ADN afin d’explorer la question des relations au sein des premières populations d’animaux domestiques d’Afrique australe. Or, une grande proportion des séquences d’ADN ancien indiquent une origine sauvage. Ceci nous conduit à envisager l’ampleur potentielle du problème et ses implications sur les modèles actuels relatifs à l’introduction de l’élevage sur le sous-continent. Le problème trouve certainement sa source dans l’identification optimiste de certains spécimens associés à un trop faible nombre de marqueurs morphologiques. Nous reconnaissons que les reconstructions du passé sont biaisées par la disparition de certaines données zoo-archéologiques et par un trop grand nombre d’identifications à l’identique. Mais nous soutenons néanmoins que les conséquences induites par des modèles construits sur des données discutables sont plus importantes que celles pour des modèles volontiers enclins à reconnaitre la fragilité des données et appelant à poursuivre la recherche.



We thank Annie Antonities, Karin Scott, and Evin Grody for the invitation to participate in this special issue and Guillaume Porraz for translating the abstract for us.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • K. Ann Horsburgh
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Jayson Orton
    • 3
    • 4
    • 5
  • Richard G. Klein
    • 6
    • 7
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologySouthern Methodist UniversityDallasUSA
  2. 2.School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental StudiesUniversity of the WitwatersrandWitsSouth Africa
  3. 3.ASHA Consulting (Pty) Ltd.MuizenbergSouth Africa
  4. 4.Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of Cape TownCape TownSouth Africa
  5. 5.Department of Anthropology and ArchaeologyUniversity of South AfricaPretoriaSouth Africa
  6. 6.Program in Human BiologyStanford UniversityStanfordUSA
  7. 7.Natural History Collections DepartmentIziko Museums of South AfricaCape TownSouth Africa

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