The Archaeozoology and Large Mammal section houses one of the most comprehensive collections of mammal skeletons in Africa. The collection comprises of over 4500 skeletons. Most of the species are from mammals in southern Africa, but also from Europe, Asia, Australasia, and North and South America.
The focus is on larger mammals, with smaller mammals being housed in the Small Mammal Collection of the Museum. Researchers from the section analyse animal remains from archaeological and paleontological sites in southern Africa, including South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Malawi.
These sites date from the “Early”, Middle and Later Stone Ages, the Early, Middle and Late Iron Ages and the historical period (2.5 million years to a hundred years ago).
Archaeozoology is a small science, with only about 500 specialists worldwide. Archaeozoology (or zooarchaeology) only emerged worldwide as a distinct science in the 1970s. South Africa is the only country in southern Africa with professional archaeozoologists, with specialists based at the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History (former Transvaal Museum) in Pretoria, the National Museum in Bloemfontein, and the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town.
In 1976, due to a growing demand from archaeologists to have animal remains identified from excavated sites, the Archaeozoology section was established at the then Transvaal Museum. The mandate of the section was to analyse and identify animal remains from archaeological sites from southern Africa. Since the late 1800s, the Transvaal Museum had collected skeletons of mammals, but these consisted mostly of skulls only.
With the establishment of the new section however, complete skeletons were collected from zoos and game parks. The first Curator of Archaeozoology was Ms. Elizabeth Ann (“Liz”) Voigt, until she accepted the Directorship of the McGregor Museum in Kimberley in 1986. From 1987 to 1999 the section was curated by Dr. Ina Plug. When the section was established in 1976, very little was known about the usage of animals by people in the past.
The timing and spread of domestic animals such as cattle, sheep and goats were poorly understood. Both Liz Voigt and Ina Plug established and refined analytical methods, in addition to their research on animal use over time and space in southern Africa. In the late 1990’s, additional skulls from the former Mammal section were amalgamated with the skeletons from Archaeozoology. The current Curator is Dr. Shaw Badenhorst.