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They have body armor consisting of bony scales, prominent sharp teeth, and a semi-aggressive nature that prompted naturalist William Bartram to describe the fish as a “warlike, voracious creature.” There are five surviving species of gar still swimming in the waters of the Southeastern United States today, including alligator gar, spotted gar, longnose gar, shortnose gar, and Florida gar. Gar remains have been reported from at least 15 sites in Tennessee including Eva, Castalian Springs, Fewkes, and Toqua.
We find their scales, vertebrae, and jaws archaeologically at sites across the Southeast dating to the Archaic period (ca. In most cases, archaeologists have treated gar remains as part of the daily food waste – especially at sites from the Archaic and Woodland periods.
Only two of the archaeological identifications of gar which we have reviewed record evidence of these activities.
Much of the available ethnographic and ethnohistoric data for Native American gar use describe tattooing and scratching functions.
This cooking method would leave behind an archaeological signature of carbonized scales and other burnt bones.
So, if garfish were not eaten, why do we find their scales and parts of their skeletons in our excavation units and artifact screens?
Discussions of gar in online fishing forums often state that Native Americans used larger scales as arrow points.
However, human-animal relationships are, and were, much more complex than the simple equation “.” Animal remains recovered from archaeological contexts have much to tell us about social and political systems and worldviews of the indigenous peoples of Tennessee and the American Southeast.
By using every data category available to us, including ethnographic and ethnohistoric literature, we are perhaps better able to understand the gar’s place in the lives of ancient peoples.