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The History of MNI in North American Zooarchaeology

  • R. Lee Lyman
Chapter

Abstract

North American zooarchaeologists’ use of the minimum number of individuals (MNI) quantitative unit began early in the twentieth century, prior to the discipline’s received wisdom that Theodore White introduced it. Frequencies of publications indicate that MNI’s popularity grew in the 1960s as a result of White’s innovative technique for estimating meat weight and his demonstration (if not explanation) of how to determine MNI values from tallies of particular skeletal parts (e.g., left distal humerus) in order to infer butchering practices. Use of MNI also increased as a result of a desire to measure taxonomic abundances with a quantitative unit that accounted for intertaxonomic variation in the number of identifiable skeletal elements per carcass and in fragmentation intensity. Knowing zooarchaeology’s history is critical to avoiding disciplinary amnesia and previously noted analytical pitfalls. Further, historical knowledge reveals target variables early zooarchaeologists sought to measure and why they chose particular measured variables—in this case, MNI—to monitor those target variables.

Keywords

Butchering Disciplinary amnesia Meat weight Minimum number of individuals Taxonomic abundances Theodore E. White 

Notes

Acknowledgments

I thank Chistina Giovas and Aaron Poteate for asking me to participate in the 79th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology where an initial (much shorter) version of this paper was presented. They and two anonymous referees identified important ways to make a longer version better.

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of MissouriColumbiaUSA

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