Jay Fancher wrote this essay for distribution to his Anthropology 101 students at Washington State University. We thank Jay for contributing this resource for use on these web pages.
Do Archaeologists Dig Dinosaur Bones?
Jason M. Fancher
Washington State University
Department of Anthropology
It might surprise you, but the answer to that question is no. Scientists who study dinosaur bones (or fossils) are called paleontologists. Paleontologists have a lot in common with archaeologists - both excavate and study animal bones. Archaeologists who specialize in animal bones study zooarchaeology, which means “the archaeology of animals”. You might wonder: if dinosaurs are animals that existed in the past, and zooarchaeologists study animals from the past, then why don’t they study dinosaurs? Here’s the key difference between paleontology and archaeology: archaeologists study the human past. Zooarchaeologists specifically study the relationships between people and animals in the past.
One of the easiest questions that can be answered by animal bones buried in an archaeological site is “What kinds of animals were people eating?” People ate all sorts of animals including bugs, fish, mice, monkeys, and even mammoths. So, why didn’t they eat dinosaurs (this is kind of a trick question)? Most dinosaurs were huge and must have had a lot of meat. Maybe dinosaurs were too dangerous for people to hunt. Actually, the reason people didn’t eat dinos is much simpler. The last of the dinosaurs died out about 65 million years ago. Our earliest hominid (human-like) ancestors didn’t arise until about 5 million years ago. So, despite what you see on The Flintstones, people and dinosaurs never lived on our planet at the same time! It would have been impossible for people to eat dinosaurs, or go for rides on them, or keep them as pets. For the entire time that people have been around, dinosaurs have been extinct.
Dinosaurs are fascinating, and their fossils help paleontologists study the history of life on earth, but dinosaur bones aren’t very helpful to archaeologists who want to understand human prehistory. Maybe someday dinosaurs will walk the earth again (like in the Jurassic Park movies), but for now, people and dinosaurs have never existed at the same time.