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Anthropology Comparative Osteology Museum Solves Mysteries Old and New

Wednesday, February 06, 2013
Ever walk across the prairie or through a forest, stumble across a bone of some sort and wonder what kind of animal that bone might belong to?

Chances are Wyoming Assistant State Archaeologist Danny Walker could tell you, and if he couldn’t, he’d certainly know where to go to find out.

Since arriving at UW in 1973, Dr. Walker, who has a master’s in Archaeology and a Ph.D. in zoology, has developed, administered and enhanced the University of Wyoming, Department of Anthropology’s Comparative Osteology Museum and Zooarchaeology Laboratory. In layman’s terms, Dr. Walker has collected more than 3,000 complete skeletons of animals ranging from a shrew (the smallest) to an elephant. These skeletons are compared to bones that might be found in an archaeological excavation to determine what type of animals the people that inhabited that area many years ago were hunting.

Dr. Danny Walker stands next to a drawer containing
several animal skeletons. Each box contains a complete

When Dr. Walker arrived at UW, there were assorted parts of only six skeletons; mostly deer, pronghorn and elk.

Located in the basement of the Anthropology Building on the UW campus, Dr. Walker’s collection of 3,000 skeletons includes 40 bison ranging in age from the fetal size to 20-years old and 90 mountain sheep. Through his work with the bones in the collection, Dr. Walker can tell within several seconds what kind of bone he’s looking at and from what kind of animal.

Most of the specimens in the collection are from the northern plains and Rocky Mountain area, although several, such as the elephant are from other regions. Dr. Walker was able to acquire the elephant from a circus after the animal contracted salmonella poisoning from a bad batch of hay.

Not only was the elephant a unique addition to his collection, but Dr. Walker and a group of students processed the animal with primitive stone tools as an experiment.

The collection also includes a llama from South America, camels and other big game from Africa. These specimens were acquired for use by UW students that may have done archaeological projects in Africa or South America, and because ancestors of these animals that are now extinct in North America, could also be found in what is now the Rocky Mountain region.

This box contains the complete skeleton of a female pronghorn.

According to Dr. Walker, the Osteology Museum was developed “because of a need” and is one of the most comprehensive skeletal collections in the Western United States. He has received skeletons from a variety of sources ranging from hunters to Game and Fish wardens to taxidermists and in some cases, roadkill.

The bone structures of an animal from the Ice Age until now are basically the same, according to Dr. Walker, so although an archaeologist might find a piece of bone thousands of year’s old, the same type of bone from a modern skeleton, a tibia for example, should be similar.

According to Dr. Walker, an archaeologist usually has a pretty good idea of what kind of animal bones they might expect to find during an excavation. However, upon finding a bone, because of age, size and other variables, they might not be able to determine if the bone is from a deer, pronghorn or mountain sheep. Dr. Walker can help them make that determination.

An archaeologist might also come across a bone from an animal that is extinct. Dr. Walker’s collection comes in especially useful in those instances.

“There are times when we have an archaeologist doing contract work in the state come in with a box of several bones wanting to find out what type of animal they belong to,” Walker said.

Dr. Walker’s extensive expertise in identifying bones has also made him a valuable asset in the area of wildlife forensics and has helped solve a handful poaching cases. He has also testified as an expert witness in trials in both Wyoming and Colorado.

To the average person who comes across a bone or skeleton out in the wilds of Wyoming, what they see might not mean much, but to Dr. Walker, another archaeologist or maybe even a game warden, that pile of bones might tell a story. If there is one, Dr. Walker and his Comparative Osteology Museum and Zooarchaeology Laboratory might help to tell it.

Message added by SPCR at: 10:45:45 AM

Animal Anthropology Archaeology Forensics Osteology
Skeletons State Archaeologist University of Wyoming Wildlife Zoology

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