Critical review of the MNI (minimum number of individuals) as a zooarchaeological unit of quantification

  • Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo
Original Paper


The use of minimum number of individuals (MNI) in the analysis of mammal archaeofaunal assemblages has received intense criticism for its derived nature and its dependence of biasing variables. Some authors have argued that similar taxonomic variability as documented by MNI can be achieved with other less biased measuring units, such as number of identified specimens (NISP) and derivates thereof. The present study is the first experimentally controlled test that shows the degree of bias of estimates of MNI and NISP by different analysts. It shows that the margins of error of both measuring units are independent and that MNI can be more accurately estimated than NISP, despite its “derived” inferential nature.


MNI NISP MNE QSP Aggregation Mathematical modelling 



I am extremely thankful to T.R. Pickering and J. Yravedra for their very useful comments in an earlier draft of this paper.


  1. Badgley C (1986) Counting individuals in mammalian fossil assemblages from fluvial environments. Palaios 3:328–338CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bartram L (1993) An ethnoarchaeological analysis of Kua San (Botswana) bone food refuse. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of WisconsinGoogle Scholar
  3. Binford LR (1984) Faunal remains from Klasies River Mouth. Academic, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  4. Bunge M (1998) Philosophy of science. Transaction, LondonGoogle Scholar
  5. Bunn HT (1982) Meat-eating and human evolution: studies on the diet and subsistence patterns of Plio-Pleistocene hominids in East Africa. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  6. Bunn HT (1989) Diagnosing Plio-Pleistocene hominid activity with bone fracture evidence. In: Bonnischen R, Sorg MH (eds) Bone modification. Center for the Study of the First Americans, Orono, pp 299–315Google Scholar
  7. Bunn HT (1991) A taphonomic perspective on the archaeology of human origins. Annu Rev of Anthropolog 20:433–467CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Casteel RW (1977a) Characterization of faunal assemblages and the minimum number of individuals determined from paired elements: continuing problems in archaeology. J Archaeol Sci 4:125–134CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Casteel RW (1977b) A consideration of the behaviour of the minimum number of individuals index: a problem in faunal characterization. Ossa 3(4):141–151Google Scholar
  10. Chaplin RE (1971) The study of animal bones from archaeological sites. Seminar, LondonGoogle Scholar
  11. Cleghorn N, Marean CW (2007) The destruction of skeletal elements by carnivores: the growth of a general model for skeletal element destruction and survival in zooarchaeological assemblages. In: Pickering TR, Schick K, Toth N (eds) Breathing life into fossils: taphonomic studies in honour of C.K. (Bob) Brain. The Stone Age Institute, Bloomington, pp 37–66Google Scholar
  12. de Ruiter D (2004) Relative abundance, skeletal part representation and accumulating agents of macromammals at Swartkrans. In: Brain CK (ed) Swartkrans: a cave’s chronicle of early man. Transvaal Museum monograph no 8, 2nd edn. Transvaal Museum, Pretoria, pp 265–278Google Scholar
  13. Domínguez-Rodrigo M, Pickering TR (2010) A multivariate approach for discriminating bone accumulations created by spotted hyenas and leopards: harnessing actualistic data from East and South Africa. J of Taphon 8:155–180Google Scholar
  14. Domínguez-Rodrigo M, Mabulla A, Bunn HT, Diez-Martín F, Barba R, Egeland CP, Espílez E, Egeland A, Yravedra J, Sánchez P (2009) Unravelling hominid behavior at another anthropogenic site from Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania): new archaeological and taphonomic research at BK, Upper Bed II. J Hum Evol 57:260–283CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Efron B, Tibshirani RJ (1993) An introduction to the bootstrap. Chapman and Hall, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  16. Egeland CP, Pickering TR, Domínguez-Rodrigo M (2004) Disentangling stone age palimpsests: determining the functional independent of hominid- and carnivore-derived portions of archaeofaunas. J Hum Evol 47:343–357CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Grayson DK (1978) Minimum numbers and sample size in vertebrate faunal analysis. Am Antiq 43:53–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Grayson DK (1984) Quantitative zooarcheology. Academic, OrlandoGoogle Scholar
  19. Grayson DK, Frey C (2004) Measuring skeletal party representation in archaeological faunas. J of Taphon 2:27–42Google Scholar
  20. Klein RG (1980) The interpretation of mammalian faunas from Stone-Age archeological sites, with special reference to sites in the Southern Cape Province, South Africa. In: Behrensmeyer AK, Hill AP (eds) Fossils in the making. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 223–246Google Scholar
  21. Lyman RL (2008) Quantitative paleozoology. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  22. Marshall F, Pilgram T (1993) NISP vs MNI in quantification of body part representation. Am Antiq 58:261–269CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Payne S (1972) On the interpretations of bone samples from archaeological sites. In: Higgs ES (ed) Papers in economic prehistory. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  24. Perkins D (1973) A critique of the methods of quantifying faunal remains from archaeological sites. In: Matolcsi J (ed) Domestikations-forschungund geschichte der Haustiere. Akademiai Kiado, Budapest, pp 367–369Google Scholar
  25. Pickering TR (1999) Taphonomic interpretation of the Sterkfontein early hominid site (Gauteng, South Africa) reconsidered in light of recent evidence. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of WisconsinGoogle Scholar
  26. Pickering TR, Egeland CP (2006) Experimental patterns of hammerstone percussion damage on bones: implications for inferences of carcass processing by humans. J Archaeol Sci 33:459–469CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Pickering TR, Marean CW, Domínguez-Rodrigo M (2003) Importance of limb bone shafts in zooarchaeology: a response to “On in situ attrition and vertebrate body part profiles”, by M.C. Stiner. J Archaeol Sci 30:1469–1482CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Plug C, Plug I (1990) MNI counts as estimates of species abundance. South Afr Archaeol Bull 45:53–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Plug, I. 1988. Hunters and herders: an archaeozoological study of some prehistoric communities in the Kruger National Park. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Pretoria. Google Scholar
  30. Simpson GG (1970) Uniformitarianism: an inquiry into principle, theory, and method in geohistory and biohistory. In: Hecht MK, Steere WC (eds) Essays in evolution and genetics in honor of Theodosius Dobzhansky. Appleton, New York, pp 43–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Uerpmann HP (1973) Animal bone finds and economic archaeology: a critical study of “osteoarchaeological” method. World Archaeol 4:307–322CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. White TE (1953) A method of calculating the dietary percentage of various food animals utilized by aboriginal peoples. Am Antiq 18:396–398CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Yravedra J, Dominguez-Rodrigo M (2009) The shaft-based methodological approach to the quantification of long limb bones and its relevance to understanding hominid subsistence in the Pleistocene: application to four Paleolithic sites. J Quat Sci 24:85–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PrehistoryComplutense University of MadridMadridSpain
  2. 2.IDEA (Instituto de Evolución en África)Museo de los OrígenesMadridSpain

Personalised recommendations