The History of MNI in North American Zooarchaeology



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.


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



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.


  1. Adams, W. R. (1949a). Faunal remains from the Angel site. Unpublished master’s thesis, Indiana University, Bloomington.Google Scholar
  2. Adams, W. R. (1949b). Food animals used by the Indians at the Angel site. Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science, 59, 19–24.Google Scholar
  3. Badgley, C. (1986). Counting individuals in mammalian fossil assemblages from fluvial environments. PALAIOS, 1, 328–338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Barr, K. A. (1979). An analysis of the faunal assemblage from the Elam site: An upper Mississippian seasonal encampment on the Kalamazoo River in Allegan County, Michigan. Unpublished master’s thesis, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo.Google Scholar
  5. Binford, L. R. (1968a). Archeological perspectives. In S. R. Binford & L. R. Binford (Eds.), New perspectives in archeology (pp. 5–32). Chicago: Aldine.Google Scholar
  6. Binford, L. R. (1968b). Some comments on historical versus processual archaeology. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 24, 267–275.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Binford, L. R. (1978). Nunamiut ethnoarchaeology. New York: Academic.Google Scholar
  8. Binford, L. R. (1981). Bones: Ancient men and modern myths. New York: Academic.Google Scholar
  9. Binford, L. R. (1984). Faunal remain from Klasies River Mouth. Orlando: Academic.Google Scholar
  10. Binford, L. R., & Bertram, J. B. (1977). Bone frequencies—and attritional processes. In L. R. Binford (Ed.), For theory building in archaeology (pp. 77–153). New York: Academic.Google Scholar
  11. Bogan, A. E. (1976). A zooarchaeological analysis of vertebrate remains from Chota-Tanasi, a historic Cherokee village in east Tennessee. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.Google Scholar
  12. Bogan, A. E., Curren, C. B., Jr., Noble, A. W., & Robison, N. D. (1978). A bibliography for zooarchaeology with an emphasis on eastern North America. In A. E. Bogan & N. D. Robison (Eds.), A history and selected bibliography of zooarchaeology in Eastern North America (pp. 23–92). Knoxville: Tennessee Anthropological Association. Miscellaneous Paper No. 2.Google Scholar
  13. Bogan, A. E., Robison, N. D., & Bogan, C. M. (1987). Bibliography of zooarchaeology. In A. E. Bogan & N. D. Robison (Eds.), The zooarchaeology of Eastern North America: History, method and theory, and bibliography (pp. 66–202). Knoxville: Tennessee Anthropological Association. Miscellaneous Paper No. 12.Google Scholar
  14. Brain, C. K. (1967). Hottentot food remains and their bearing on the interpretation of fossil bone assemblages. Scientific Papers of the Namib Desert Research Station, 32, 1–11.Google Scholar
  15. Brain, C. K. (1969). The contribution of the Namib Desert Hottentots to an understanding of australopithecine bone accumulations. Scientific Papers of the Namib Desert Research Station, 39, 13–22.Google Scholar
  16. Brain, C. K. (1976). Some principles in the interpretation of bone accumulations associated with man. In G. L. Isaac & E. R. McCown (Eds.), Human origins: Louis Leakey and the East African evidence (pp. 97–116). Menlo Park, CA: W.B. Benjamin.Google Scholar
  17. Bunn, H. T. (1982). Meat-eating and human evolution: Studies on the diet and subsistence patterns of Plio-Pleistocene hominids in East Africa. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.Google Scholar
  18. Bunn, H. T. (1986). Patterns of skeletal element representation and hominid subsistence activities at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, and Koobi Fora, Kenya. Journal of Human Evolution, 15, 673–690.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Bunn, H. T., & Kroll, E. M. (1986). Systematic butchery by Plio/Pleistocene hominids at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Current Anthropology, 27, 431–452.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Burt, W. H. (1961). A fauna from an Indian site near Redington, Arizona. Journal of Mammalogy, 42, 115–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Casteel, R. W. (1977a). Characterization of faunal assemblages and the minimum number of individuals determined from paired elements: Continuing problems in archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Science, 4, 125–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Casteel, R. W. (1977b). A consideration of the behaviour of the minimum number of individuals index: A problem in faunal characterization. OSSA, 3(4), 141–151.Google Scholar
  23. Chaplin, R. E. (1971). The study of animal bones from archaeological sites. London: Seminar Press.Google Scholar
  24. Cleland, C. E. (1960). Analysis of the animal remains in the prehistoric Ozark Bluff dwellings of Northwest Arkansas. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.Google Scholar
  25. Cleland, C. E. (1966). The prehistoric animal ecology and ethnology of the upper Great Lakes Region. Anthropological Papers No. 29. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology.Google Scholar
  26. Cornwall, I. W. (1956). Bones for the archaeologist. London: Phoenix House.Google Scholar
  27. Daly, P. (1969). Approaches to faunal analysis in archaeology. American Antiquity, 34, 146–153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Deetz, J. (1970). Archeology as social science. In A. Fischer (Ed.), Current directions in anthropology: A special issue (pp. 115–125). American Anthropological Association, Bulletin 3(3).Google Scholar
  29. Derry, G. N. (1999). What science is and how it works. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Domínguez-Rodrigo, M. (2012). Critical review of the MNI (minimum number of individuals) as a zooarchaeological unit of quantification. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, 4, 47–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Dunnell, R. C. (1978). Style and function: A fundamental dichotomy. American Antiquity, 43, 192–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Emery, K. F. (2003). The noble beast: Status and differential access to animals in the Maya world. World Archaeology, 34, 498–515.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Faith, J. T., & Gordon, A. D. (2007). Skeletal element abundances in archaeofaunal assemblages: Economic utility, sample size, and assessment of carcass transport strategies. Journal of Archaeological Science, 34, 872–882.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Flannery, K. V. (1967). The vertebrate fauna and hunting patterns. In D. Byers (Ed.), The prehistory of the Tehuacan Valley (pp. 132–178). Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
  35. Gilbert, B. M. (1969). Some aspects of diet and butchering techniques among prehistoric Indians in South Dakota. Plains Anthropologist, 14, 277–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Grayson, D. K. (1973). On the methodology of faunal analysis. American Antiquity, 38, 432–439.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Grayson, D. K. (1978). Minimum numbers and sample size in vertebrate faunal analysis. American Antiquity, 43, 53–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Grayson, D. K. (1979). On the quantification of vertebrate archaeofaunas. In M. B. Schiffer (Ed.), Advances in archaeological method and theory (Vol. 2, pp. 199–237). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  39. Grayson, D. K. (1984). Quantitative zooarchaeology: Topics in the analysis of archaeological faunas. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  40. Guilday, J. E. (1963). Bone refuse from the Oakfield site, Genesee County, New York. Pennsylvania Archaeologist, 33, 12–15.Google Scholar
  41. Guilday, J. E., Parmalee, P. W., & Tanner, D. P. (1962). Aboriginal butchering techniques at the Eschelman site (36 La 12), Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist, 32(2), 59–83.Google Scholar
  42. Haag, W. G. (1948). An osteometric analysis of some aboriginal dogs. University of Kentucky Reports in Anthropology, 7(3), 107–264.Google Scholar
  43. Heizer, R. F. (1960). Physical analysis of habitation residues. In R. F. Heizer & S. F. Cook (Eds.), The application of quantitative methods in archaeology (pp. 93–157). Chicago: Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology No. 28.Google Scholar
  44. Howard, H. (1930). A census of Pleistocene birds of Rancho La Brea from the collections of the Los Angeles Museum. Condor, 32, 81–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Kehoe, T. F. (1967). The Boarding School Bison Drive site. Plains Anthropologist Memoir, 4.Google Scholar
  46. Kehoe, T. F. (1973). The Gull Lake site: A prehistoric bison drive site in Southwestern Saskatchewan. Milwaukee Public Museum, Publications in Anthropology and History No. 1.Google Scholar
  47. Kehoe, T. F., & Kehoe, A. B. (1960). Observations on the butchering technique at a prehistoric bison kill in Montana. American Antiquity, 25, 420–423.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Klein, R. G., & Cruz-Uribe, K. (1984). The analysis of animal bones from archeological sites. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  49. Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  50. Kuhn, T. S. (1968). The history of science. Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 14, 74–83.Google Scholar
  51. Lorrain, D. (1967). Faunal remains. In E. B. Jelks (Ed.), The Gilbert site: A Norteño site in Northeastern Texas. Bulletin of the Texas Archaeological Society 37 (pp. 225–243).Google Scholar
  52. Lorrain, D. (1968). Analysis of the bison bones from Bonfire Shelter. In D. S. Dibble & D. Lorrain (Eds.), Bonfire Shelter: A stratified bison kill site, Val Verde County, Texas (pp. 77–134). Texas Memorial Museum Miscellaneous Papers No. 1. Austin.Google Scholar
  53. Lyman, R. L. (1979). Archaeological faunal analysis: A bibliography. Occasional Papers of the Idaho Museum of Natural History, No. 31. Pocatello.Google Scholar
  54. Lyman, R. L. (1984). Bone density and differential survivorship of fossil classes. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 3, 259–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Lyman, R. L. (1985). Bone frequencies: Differential transport, in situ destruction, and the MGUI. Journal of Archaeological Science, 12, 221–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Lyman, R. L. (1994a). Quantitative units and terminology in zooarchaeology. American Antiquity, 59, 36–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Lyman, R. L. (1994b). Relative abundances of skeletal specimens and taphonomic analysis of vertebrate remains. PALAIOS, 9, 288–298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Lyman, R. L. (2006). Identifying bilateral pairs of deer (Odocoileus sp.) bones: How symmetrical is symmetrical enough? Journal of Archaeological Science, 33, 1237–1255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Lyman, R. L. (2008). Quantitative paleozoology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Lyman, R. L. (2012). Lewis R. Binford’s impact on zooarchaeology: A consideration of three volumes (and assorted other things) that altered the way we think about the bones of human prey. Ethnoarchaeology, 4, 55–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Lyman, R. L. (2015a). The history of “laundry lists” in North American zooarchaeology. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 39, 42–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Lyman, R. L. (2015b). On the variable relationship between NISP and NTAXA in bird remains and in mammal remains. Journal of Archaeological Science, 53, 291–296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Lyman, R. L. (2016). Theodore E. White and the development of zooarchaeology in North America. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Lyon, G. M. (1937). Pinnipeds and a sea otter from the point Mugu Shell Mound of California. University of California at Los Angeles Publications in Biological Sciences, 1, 133–168.Google Scholar
  65. Martin, P. S. (1971). The revolution in archaeology. American Antiquity, 36, 1–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. McCain, G., & Segal, E. M. (1969). The game of science. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.Google Scholar
  67. Medlock, R. C. (1975). Determining the minimum number of individuals in archeological faunal analysis. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.Google Scholar
  68. Meighan, C. W., Pendergast, D. M., Swartz, B. K., & Wissler, M. D. (1958). Ecological interpretation in archaeology, part I. American Antiquity, 24, 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Nagel, E. (1961). The structure of science: Problems in the logic of scientific explanation. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.Google Scholar
  70. Neill, W. T., Gut, H. J., & Brodkorb, P. (1956). Animal remains from four preceramic sites in Florida. American Antiquity, 21, 383–395.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. O’Connor, T. (2000). The archaeology of animal bones. College Station, TX: A&M University Press.Google Scholar
  72. Olsen, S. J. (1971). Zooarchaeology: Animal bones in archaeology and their interpretation. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Module in Anthropology.Google Scholar
  73. Parmalee, P. W. (1965). The food economy of archaic and woodland peoples at the Tick Creek site, Missouri. Missouri Archaeologist, 27(1), 1–34.Google Scholar
  74. Pollock, H. E. D., & Ray, C. E. (1957). Notes on vertebrate remains from Mayapan. In Current reports (Vol. 41, pp. 633–656). Washington, DC: Carnegie Institute, Department of Archaeology.Google Scholar
  75. Quitmyer, I. R. (2003). Zooarchaeology of Cinnamon Bay, St. Johns, U.S. Virgin Islands: Pre-Columbian overexploitation of animal resources. In F. W. King & C. M. Porter (Eds.), Zooarchaeology: Papers to honor Elizabeth S. Wing (pp. 131–158). Florida Museum of Natural History Bulletin, Vol. 44(1). Gainesville.Google Scholar
  76. Reed, C. A. (1963). Osteo-archaeology. In D. Brothwell & E. Higgs (Eds.), Science in archaeology (pp. 204–216). New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  77. Reitz, E. J. (1993). Zooarchaeology. In J. K. Johnson (Ed.), The development of Southeastern archaeology (pp. 109–131). Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.Google Scholar
  78. Reitz, E. J. (2003). Resource use through time at Paloma, Peru. In F. W. King & C. M. Porter (Eds.), Zooarchaeology: Papers to honor Elizabeth S. Wing (pp. 65–80). Florida Museum of Natural History Bulletin, Vol. 44(1). Gainesville.Google Scholar
  79. Reitz, E. J., & Wing, E. S. (1999). Zooarchaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  80. Reitz, E. J., & Wing, E. S. (2008). Zooarchaeology (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Robison, N. D. (1977). A zooarchaeological analysis of the Mississippian faunal remains from the Normandy Reservoir. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.Google Scholar
  82. Robison, N. D. (1978). Zooarchaeology: Its history and development. In A. E. Bogan & N. D. Robison (Eds.), A history and selected bibliography of zooarchaeology in Eastern North America (pp. 1–22). Miscellaneous Paper No. 2. Knoxville: Tennessee Anthropological Association.Google Scholar
  83. Robison, N. D. (1987). Zooarchaeology: Its history and development. In A. E. Bogan & N. D. Robison (Eds.), The zooarchaeology of Eastern North America: History, method and theory, and bibliography (pp. 1–26). Miscellaneous Paper No. 12. Knoxville: Tennessee Anthropological Association.Google Scholar
  84. Schiffer, M. B. (1979). Some impacts of cultural resource management on American archaeology. In J. R. McKinlay & K. L. Jones (Eds.), Archaeological resource management in Australia and Oceania (pp. 1–11). Wellington: New Zealand Historic Places Trust.Google Scholar
  85. Shotwell, J. A. (1955). An approach to the paleoecology of mammals. Ecology, 30, 327–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Smith, B. D. (1975). Middle Mississippi exploitation of animal populations. Anthropological Papers No. 57. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology.Google Scholar
  87. Smith, B. D. (1976). “Twitching”: A minor ailment affecting human paleoecological research. In C. E. Cleland (Ed.), Cultural change and continuity: Essays in honor of James Bennett Griffin (pp. 275–292). New York: Academic.Google Scholar
  88. Stanford, D. J. (1976). The Walakpa Site, Alaska: Its place in the Birknirk and Thule cultures.Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology No. 20.Google Scholar
  89. Stewart, K. M. (2002). Past and present zooarchaeology in Canada. Archaeofauna, 11, 147–157.Google Scholar
  90. Stewart, F. L. (2003). Zooarchaeology: Where have we been and where are we going? In K. M. Stewart & F. L. Stewart (Eds.), Transitions in zooarchaeology: New methods and new results (pp. 135–150). Canadian Zooarchaeology Supplement 1. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Museum of Nature.Google Scholar
  91. Stiner, M. C. (2005). The faunas of Hayonim Cave, Israel: A 200,000-year record of Paleolithic diet, demography, and society. American School of Prehistoric Research Bulletin 48. New Haven, CT: Harvard University, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.Google Scholar
  92. Stock, C. (1929). A census of the Pleistocene mammals of Rancho La Brea, based on the collections of the Los Angeles Museum. Journal of Mammalogy, 10, 281–289.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Todd, L. C. (1983). The Horner Site: Taphonomy of an early Holocene bison bonebed. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.Google Scholar
  94. Todd, L. C. (1987). Taphonomy of the Horner II bone bed. In G. C. Frison & L. C. Todd (Eds.), The Horner site: The type site of the Cody Cultural Complex (pp. 107–198). Orlando: Academic.Google Scholar
  95. Watson, P. J., LeBlanc, S. A., & Redman, C. L. (1971). Explanation in archeology: An explicitly scientific approach. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  96. White, T. E. (1952a). Observations on the butchering techniques of some aboriginal peoples: No. 1. American Antiquity, 17, 337–338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. White, T. E. (1952b). Suggestions on the butchering technique of the inhabitants of the Dodd and Phillips Ranch sites in Oahe Reservoir area. Plains Archaeological Conference News Letter, 5, 54–58.Google Scholar
  98. White, T. E. (1953a). A method of calculating the dietary percentage of various food animals utilized by aboriginal peoples. American Antiquity, 18, 396–398.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  99. White, T. E. (1953b). Studying osteological material. Plains Archaeological Conference News Letter, 6(1), 58–67.Google Scholar
  100. White, T. E. (1953c). Observations on the butchering techniques of some aboriginal peoples: No. 2. American Antiquity, 19, 160–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  101. White, T. E. (1954). Observations on the butchering techniques of some aboriginal peoples: Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 6. American Antiquity, 19, 254–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  102. White, T. E. (1955). Observations on the butchering techniques of some aboriginal peoples: Nos. 7, 8, and 9. American Antiquity, 21, 170–178.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  103. Wing, E. S. (1962). Succession of mammalian faunas on Trinidad, West Indies. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Florida, Gainesville.Google Scholar
  104. Wing, E. S. (1963a). Vertebrate remains from the Wash Island site. Florida Anthropologist, 16, 93–96.Google Scholar
  105. Wing, E. S. (1963b). Vertebrates from the Jungerman and Goodman sites near the east coast of Florida. Contributions to the Florida State Museum Social Sciences, 10, 51–60.Google Scholar
  106. Wood, W. R. (1962). Notes on the bison bone from the Paul Brave, Huff, and Demery sites (Oahe Reservoir). Plains Anthropologist, 7, 201–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  107. Wood, W. R. (1968). Mississippian hunting and butchering patterns: Bone from the Vista Rockshelter (23-SR-20), Missouri. American Antiquity, 33, 170–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  108. Ziegler, A. C. (1965). The role of faunal remains in archaeological investigations. Sacramento Anthropological Society and Central California Archaeological Foundation Papers, 3,47–75.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of MissouriColumbiaUSA

Personalised recommendations