Laypeople may assume that animal bone is a common feature of most archaeological sites. However, good ecofact (e.g., bone/shell) preservation occurs infrequently in the regional archaeological record of western Illinois–most prehistoric sites produce none or very little. This is largely due to the acidic nature of many soils, coupled with natural degradation caused by sun, wind, moisture, temperature, and time. These factors typically destroy evidence of organic remains, such as wood, clothing, and bone, in many open-air sites. In contrast, charred plant remains are sometimes found in subsurface pits and midden (trash) deposits that were not exposed to the elements for extended periods of time, because burning makes them inert. Thus, the prehistoric archaeological record is frequently biased toward the recovery of the better-preserved aspects of daily life, such as stone tools, pottery sherds, and charcoal (wood/nutshell/seeds).
Recent archaeological investigations by the Western Illinois Field Station at an Illinois valley village site in Fulton County produced a large sample of preserved animal bone and discarded mussel shell. This material provides an outstanding data set for examining the lifeways of regional Late Woodland and Mississippian groups who lived in this area around 1,000 years ago.
While many might regard this material as de facto food waste, the bone, antler, and shell derived from hunting/fishing/gathering clearly formed an important source of raw material to the native people who occupied this location. This material was used to produce tools and objects important to everyday pursuits. Interestingly, bone and antler tools occur nearly as frequently as their chipped stone counterparts at this particular site, which is located in an atypically chert-poor part of the region. However, implements made from organic sources probably always formed a substantial, if not dominant, part of native tool kits and personal gear—we just rarely find them because they have not been preserved. Because of the unusual preservation due to this site's higher-ph loess-based soil, the collection includes: antler flakers and drifts/batons used for flintknapping, other examples that were hollowed out and made into probable stone tool hafts or handles and socketed arrow points, bone needles, pins, awls/perforators, and at least one fish gorge (basically a straight fishhook), as well as shell scrapers, possible hoes or digging tools, and at least one small shell pendant.
Based upon the richness and overall diversity of the recovered plant and animal remains, this must have been an incredible place to live. The natural resources of the Illinois River drainage were in fact described in glowing terms by Pierre Deliette, a French soldier who lived among the native Peoria/Kaskaskia in the early 1700s. He equated this area to paradise, because such a wide range of useful plants, trees, animals, and fish were available. These abundant resources provided not only food and tools but were the source of native clothing and shelter, rope, twine, and textiles, building material, fuel for fire, fertilizer for gardens, and so many other things.
Despite obvious abundance, these people seem to have used what was available judiciously, because evidence for recycling and repurposing is prevalent at this and many other sites. Most of the native inhabitants of Illinois clearly seemed to relate to their environment and food ways in a more holistic fashion than today–nearly all of what eventually became waste was biodegradable or otherwise natural to the area. That is something to think about the next time we casually discard the bones, packaging, and other material derived from our latest meal. What will the archaeologists of the future think of us?