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Khoekhoe pastoralists living in Gobabeb, in the arid Kuiseb River Valley of central-western Namibia, keep goats (Capra hircus). Several decades ago, palaeontologist C.K. Brain collected modern skeletal remains of goats from these villages.  The goats were butchered using pocketknives with metal blades.  We investigated the frequency of butchery marks on a sub-sample of this collection, representing 60% of the total assemblage.  Most specimens in the collection are weathered.  Moreover, most goat specimens from Gobabeb lack butchery evidence and even the use of magnification only marginally increased this number.  We compared our results with the frequency of butchery marks documented from Early and Middle Iron Age samples from South Africa, a time when sheep dominated faunal assemblages and were slaughtered using metal knives.  The frequency of specimens with butchery marks in the goat sample from Gobabeb is higher than that recorded for the Early and Middle Iron Age samples.  The higher frequency of butchery marks on the goat remains from Gobabeb may relate to aspects such as the butchering method and style, as well as the large size of the specimens themselves.

KEYWORDS: actualistic studies, butchery practices, cut mark frequency, arid environment


Butchery marks provide direct evidence of meat-eating by hominins (e.g., Bunn 1981; Blumenschine 1995; Blumenschine et al. 1996; Merritt 2012).  The frequency of butchery marks on skeletons of animal prey remains an important avenue of research in zooarchaeology (Lyman 1994).  Data on butchery are often used by zooarchaeologists to infer the nature of carcass processing from archaeological faunal samples (Egeland 2003).  The frequency of butchery marks on animal remains relates to the agents involved in the butchery process (Lyman 2005).  These are, first, the animal that is butchered, including aspects such as size, species, age, sex, and preparation of the meat (e.g., Binford 1981; Lyman 1992; Milo 1998; Domínguez-Rodrigo & Barba 2005; Pobiner & Braun 2005; Domínguez-Rodrigo & Yravedra 2009).  Second, the tools used also influence the frequency of butchery marks on bone. Important aspects of the tools include the use of retouched vs. un-retouched tools, the type of tool, the raw material used, and hafted vs. hand-held tools (e.g., Walker & Long 1977; Olsen 1988; Greenfield 2008; Domínguez-Rodrigo & Yravedra 2009; Leenen 2011).  Third, the butcher and procedures used are additional factors, including the techniques and experience of the butcher, as well his/her age, sex and strength (e.g., Frison 1971; Mooketsi 2001; Parsons & Badenhorst 2004). The frequency of butchery evidence is further distorted by a variety of post-depositional processes (Thompson 2005), such as weathering, scavenging, attrition (Brain 1981; Lyman 1994), analytical, retrieval and excavation biases (Driver 1982; 1991), as well as quantification units (Otárola-Castillo 2010).  The use of magnification often results in greater recognition of butchery evidence (Plug 2004; Collins 2013; also Reynard et al., 2014).  We recently investigated a collection of modern goat (Capra hircus) remains from Gobabeb, Namibia to document the frequency of butchery marks.

gobabeb goats

Palaeontologist, C.K. Brain collected goat remains from villages occupied by Topnaar Khoekhoe pastoralists in the Gobabeb region of central-western Namibia in the 1960s (Fig. 1).  Brain (1967a, b; 1969; 1981) used this collection to counter the Osteodontokeratic Culture hypothesis of Dart (1957).  Brain (1981) was instrumental in determining that animal skeletal parts from archaeological and fossil sites are severely influenced by bone density attrition.

Gobabeb is located 110 km southeast of Walvis Bay in central-western Namibia.  Around Gobabeb, the main channel of the Kuiseb River is between 50 and 80 m wide, with a riparian flood plain of 20 to 200 m on each side (Eckard et al., 2013).  The Kuiseb River is usually dry and only flows occasionally after heavy rains.  Subsurface flow is considerable though, allowing for the growth of dense vegetation around the riverbed.  The Khoekhoe dig shallow wells in the riverbed, providing for all their water needs.  At least 18 villages have existed along the Kuiseb River, with only eight occupied by the 1960s, and a total population of less than 150.  Daily life of the Khoekhoe revolved around their goat herds.  A small quantity of tobacco was grown, but people subsisted entirely on goat milk, goat meat, naras melons (Acanthosicyos horridus) and the sale of goatskins.  The goats lived entirely on the vegetation of the dry riverbed, in particular from dry seeds of ana trees (Acacia alhida).  In these arid environments, four miles of riverbed were required to provide the 460 goats in one village with sufficient grazing.  A total of 2000 goats were found in the eight villages (Brain 1967b).

Figure1.  Location of Gobabeb, Namibia (adapted from

Between 1965 and 1967, Brain collected 2373 goat specimens from the eight villages.  These were all the available remains visible on the surface at the time.  A person’s wealth is measured by the size of his goat herd and, as a result, goats were not frequently slaughtered.  Nevertheless, Brain (1967a, b) observed and interviewed the Khoekhoe about their butchery techniques.  Brain (1967b) noted that the Khoekhoe caused considerable damage to goat bones, during an experimental butchering.  In total, 15 caudal vertebrae were chewed and swallowed, while limb bones such as femora and metapodials suffered severe damage at the epiphyseal ends.  Based on the number of horns in the sample he collected, Brain (1967b) calculated a minimum of 190 individuals.  However, he regarded this number as too high.  In arid environments, the horn sheath is almost indestructible, and it lasts for several years after other traces of bone have disappeared.  Part of the sample of goat bones came from two deserted villages, which had not been inhabited for over ten years.  At these two villages, nearly all the remains left were horn.  The Gobabeb region receives less than 25 millimetres of rain per year, and in other regions with higher rainfall, horns would disappear rapidly (Brain 1967b).


We recorded the elements, portion of element (after Dobney & O’Rielly 1988) and sides of the goat remains.  The ages of the long bones were based on epiphyseal fusion, divided into three categories, namely adults, sub-adults and juveniles.  The results were compared to tooth eruption data (Brain 1967a).  We noted all butchery (cut and chop) marks using naked-eye observations.  We further studied a random sub-sample of bones using an x10 hand-lens for any modifications not visible without magnification.  These modifications were quantified by a simple count (present vs. absent) and recorded based on skeletal element and portion.  For example, a distal humerus shaft with distal articulation containing various cut marks was counted as one modification.  We separated cut marks, which are elongated, narrow grooves often V-shaped in cross-section with flat sides; from chop marks, which appear as wide U-shaped grooves (Potts & Shipman 1981; Shipman & Rose 1983, 1984; Marshall 1989).  We took the greatest length of all the elements we investigated and grouped them in size categories of 1 cm to determine the general size of the specimens compared to those from archaeological assemblages.  We used the Number of Identified Specimens (NISP) to quantify the remains.  For the present study, we used a basic three category weathering classification of bones displaying low sun exposure, those that are sun-bleached (appearing white), and those specimens that are severely weathered (showing cracking and a chalky bone surface).  Many aspects of the Gobabeb sample remain unstudied, including the length and orientation of butchery marks, detailed weathering stages following Behrensmeyer (1978), long bone breakage, and separating carnivore from human chew marks.  These will be dealt with in future studies.


The original assemblage collected by Brain encompassed 2373 specimens (Brain 1967a, b).  We studied a sub-sample of this, numbering 1428 specimens, representing 60% of the total assemblage.  The remaining 945 specimens consist mainly of skull fragments, horn cores, unidentified bone flakes and loose teeth (Table 1).  There is a further slight discrepancy between our sample and that collected by Brain (1967a).  The reason for this is that our sample is based on those specimens measured by Badenhorst & Plug (2003), which excluded many shaft fragments and other specimens lacking measurable morphologies.  In some cases, our sample contains more specimens than that reported by Brain (1967a).  It is possible that Brain (1967a) refitted some specimens, or that a few more bones were collected during his visits in subsequent years.

The sample, weighing a total of 13 258.8 g used in this study, includes young, sub-adult and adult individuals (Table 2).  The sample is dominated by specimens that are classified as adult (n = 688).  Aging of teeth also found a dominance of adult goats, although almost half of the limb bones of the original sample derived from immature individuals (Brain 1969).  Overall, the most common elements in the sample are tibiae (n = 230), humeri (n = 189), ribs (n = 183), mandibles (n = 148) and femora (n = 115). Most elements are represented in the sample, but the following elements are absent: caudal vertebrae, carpals, tarsals, sesamoids and isolated teeth.  Most of the specimens measured between 5 and 120 cm in length, followed by relatively few specimens that measure under 5 cm or above 13 cm (Fig. 2).  No specimens smaller than 1 cm were collected, whereas the largest specimen was between 22 – 23 cm.

Table 1.  Sample comparison with Brain (1967a).

Element Number of Specimens Used in This Study Number of Specimens Collected by Brain 1967a
Skull and Maxilla 69 512
Mandible 148 188
Loose Teeth 0 15
Atlas 14 12
Axis 8 14
Other Cervical 0 12
Thoracic 26 21
Lumbar 45 31
Sacrum 2   1
Caudal 0 0
Other Vertebra 0 24
Rib 183 174
Scapula 34 59
Pelvis 48 55
Humerus 189 196
Femur 115 115
Radius – Ulna 93 207
Tibia 230 237
Metacarpal 64 100
Metatarsal 72 101
Metapodial 12 0
Astragalus 10 16
Calcanium 18 14
Phalange 46 21
Navicular Cuboid 2 0
Bone Flake 0 248
Total 1428 2373

Most specimens display some form of weathering, mostly sun bleaching (Table 3, Fig. 3).  This indicates that few bones were fresh when Brain collected them and that most specimens had been exposed to the natural elements in the arid environment for a few months.

When considering butchery marks on the Gobabeb goat remains, a number of interesting patterns emerge (Table 4, Fig. 4).  First, some elements have no evidence of butchery, including cervical (excluding the atlas and axis), thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, and astragali.  Second, despite unequivocal evidence that goats were slaughtered and consumed, only 15% of the overall sample contains butchery evidence.  Third, cut marks are more common on the goat remains than chop marks, with few specimens showing a combination of the two butchery techniques.  Fourth, the incidence of butchery varies considerably between elements, from common (above average in descending order: axis, sacrum, skull, scapula, metacarpal, atlas, humerus, radius-ulna, mandible and pelvis) to uncommon (below average in descending order: femur, tibia, metatarsal, metapodial, calcaneum and phalange).

Table 2.  Skeletal elements and age groups of the Gobabeb goats (NISP).

Element Young Sub-Adult Adult Indeterminate Total Mass (g)
Skull 4 2 20 9 35 2073
Maxilla 18 16 34 1134
Mandible 6 71 71 148 3993
Atlas 1 13 14 336.1
Axis 2 6 8 138
Thoracic 8 6 12 26 56
Lumbar 18 5 22 45 84.3
Sacrum 1 1 2 25.2
Rib 183 573
Scapula 5 2 27 34 488.3
Pelvis 1 2 45 48 312
Humerus 29 2 139 19 189 972.80
Femur 16 4 37 58 115 406.4
Radius – Ulna 8 63 71 497.3
Radius 11 1 2 14 54
Ulna 7 1 8 10.1
Tibia 11 1 72 146 230 497.3
Metacarpal 15 4 45 64 287.2
Metatarsal 22 4 46 72 995
Metapodial 7 5 12 21.5
Astragalus 1 9 10 56.8
Calcanium 5 13 18 108.2
Navicular Cuboid 1 1 2 7.3
Phalange 24 22 46 132
Total 219 106 688 232 1428 13258.8

Figure 2.  Length categories (mm) of goat remains from Gobabeb.

Table 3.  Weathering counts of Gobabeb goat bones (NISP).

Weathering Condition Number of Specimens Percentage
Low sun exposure 194 17
Sun-bleached 721 64
Severe weathering 216 19
Total 1131

Figure 3.  Examples of goat bones showing (a) sun bleaching and (b) severe weathering.

When considering the occurrence of butchery on long bones only (Table 5), the highest number of butchery modifications is recorded on the distal articulation of the humerus and the proximal shaft of the radius-ulna (the latter usually found articulated in the collection).  No butchery was recorded on the distal shaft or articulation of metapodia.  Overall, specimens with higher frequencies of butchery marks correspond to the elements Brain (1969) observed receiving severe damage during slaughtering (Table 6).  In some cases, Brain (1969) observed no damage during butchery on elements such as the distal humerus, yet they sustained some of the highest frequency of butchery marks.

We selected a random sample of 100 long bone specimens and studied them with an x10 hand-lens in an effort to increase the number of butchery marks (Table 7).  We were only able to identify one additional butchery mark that was missed during the naked-eye analyses.


The Gobabeb sample displays a high frequency of bones that are weathered.  This is to be expected given that the bones were exposed to the sun in an arid environment (Brain 1967a).  The degree of weathering, as well as the length of time causing weathering is dependent on factors such as context and geographical location (Behrensmeyer 1978).  Weathering affects the preservation of butchery marks (Gifford-Gonzalez 1989) and it is likely that weathering contributed at Gobabeb to the disappearance of butchery evidence, especially on heavily weathered bones whose outer surface had become chalky.  Chewing damage by people (Brain 1969) also likely obscured butchery marks.  Despite the influence of weathering and chewing damage, the percentage (15%) of butchery evidence on the goats from Gobabeb is higher than that usually recorded for Early and Middle Iron Age sites from South Africa (Table 8) where sheep dominate faunal assemblages (Badenhorst 2018).  These sheep were also slaughtered using metal knives, thus providing comparable data.  Faunal material recovered from archaeological sites in southern Africa is usually very fragmented (e.g., Voigt 1983).  At Gobabeb, the specimens are large, which may have contributed to an increased visibility of butchery evidence.  Moreover, archaeological samples contain a variety of animals, and some smaller taxa may not have been butchered at all, but roasted whole over coals (e.g., Henshilwood 1997), potentially biasing any comparisons between Gobabeb and archaeological samples.

Table 4.  Frequency of butchering modification on the Gobabeb goats.

Element Cut Marks Chop Marks Cut + Chop Marks Total Butchering Total Number in Assemblage % Butchered
Skull, Maxilla 9 18 27 69 39
Mandible 11 13 2 26 148 18
Atlas 3 1 4 14 29
Axis 2 2 4 8 50
Sacrum 1 1 2 50
Scapula 5 7 12 34 35
Pelvis 8 8 48 17
Humerus 44 4 2 50 189 26
Femur 13 4 2 19 115 10
Radius – Ulna 14 5 6 25 93 20
Tibia 16 4 1 21 230 9
Metacarpal 17 3 20 64 31
Metatarsal 15 15 72 8
Metapodial 1 1 2 12 8
Calcanium 1 1 18 6
Phalange 2 2 46 4
Total 134 67 11 212 1428 15

Figure 4.  Examples of goat bones with traces of butchering under a Veho USB microscope with x40 magnification: (a) specimen showing cut marks on the distal epiphysis of a humerus, (b) specimen showing evidence of cut marks on a distal metapodial, (c) chop and cut mark on a severely weathered long bone mid-shaft, and (d) chop mark on a tibia mid-shaft with low sun exposure.

Table 5.  Distribution of butchering marks on goat long bones from Gobabeb.

Element Proximal










Humerus 1 10 12 27 50
Femur 2 6 4 3 4 19
Radius – Ulna 4 15 9 2 25
Tibia 3 9 6 3 21
Metacarpal 3 11 3 3 20
Metatarsal 1 4 7 3 15
Metapodial 2 2

Table 6.  Comparisons between the frequency of butchery marks on the goats from Gobabeb (Tables 4-5) and the physical damage observed by Brain (1969).

Element Frequency of Butchery Marks Recorded Damage Noted by Brain (1969)
Skull, Maxilla High Horns broken off; occiput smashed; snout and palate broken off
Mandible High Undamaged
Atlas High Remained attached to the occiput
Axis High Part remained attached to the atlas
Sacrum High Undamaged
Scapula High Undamaged
Pelvis High Chopped through pubis and across the acetabulum
Humerus High Proximal ends chewed away; shafts broken; distal ends undamaged
Femur Low Proximal ends removed and proximal shafts chewed; shafts broken; distal ends removed and distal shafts chewed
Radius – Ulna High Shattered by stone
Tibia Low Shafts broken; damage to proximal and distal ends
Metacarpal High Proximal ends complete; distal ends removed and distal shafts chewed
Metatarsal Low Proximal ends complete; distal ends removed and distal shafts chewed
Metapodial Low
Calcanium Low Undamaged
Phalange Low Undamaged

Table 7.  Subsample of goat long bones from Gobabeb examined under x10 hand-lens.

Elements Subsample Additional Butchered Marks
Humerus 25
Femur 20 1
Radius – Ulna 10
Tibia 25
Metacarpal 10
Metatarsal 10
Total 100 1

Table 8.  Frequency of butchery marks on Early and Middle Iron Age sites from South Africa.

Site Name Total Faunal Assemblage Number of Specimens with Butchery Marks % butchered Reference
Magogo 6078 134 2 Voigt 1984
Nanda 7862 173 2 Plug 1993
KwaGandaganda 41006 3198 8 Beukes 2000
K2 98338 1694 2 Hutten 2005
Doornkop 1231 32 3 Antonites et al. 2014
MNR74 4161 85 2 Antonites et al. 2016
Gobabeb Goats 1428 165 15 This study

Moreover, the reason(s) why butchery marks are more frequent on the goat remains from Gobabeb is complex and likely multi-faceted.  Like many other pastoralist communities in Africa, the Khoekhoe of Gobabeb live in an arid environment that does not support crop cultivation, and people rely mainly on milk, blood, and meat (Brain 1967a, b; 1969).  Once goats are slaughtered, people consume all edible parts (Brain, 1967a, b).  Consequently, this intense utilisation of a carcass may have contributed to a high number of butchery marks as people removed as much meat, sinew, and ligaments as possible.

Various factors affect tenderness of meat, including breed, age, sex and diet (e.g., Schönfeldt et al., 1993), which likely cause variation in butchery frequency on skeletal elements (Badenhorst 2012).  In the Gobabeb sample, some butchery marks are seemingly inflicted randomly.  For example, some bones have cross-sectioned cut marks, while others have deep chop marks inflicted randomly on mid-shafts and epiphyseal ends.  These marks may suggest the involvement of different butchers (Stiner et al., 2009).  The lower leg bones are cooked separately by children at Gobabeb (Brain 1967b).  This may suggest the possibility that butchery marks were produced by both adult butchers and, potentially, children.  The Khoekhoe skin and dismember a goat while the carcass is suspended by its feet from a branch (Brain, 1969).  It is possible that different positions of the carcass during butchering produce different frequencies of butchery marks (Cruz-Uribe & Klein 1994; Leenen 2011).

The relative higher incidence of butchery marks on the goat remains from Gobabeb compared to Early and Middle Iron Age samples is likely due to a combination of factors.  Some of the most pertinent factors include the butchering method and style as well as the large size of the specimens themselves.


We thank the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Palaeoscience (CoE-Pal) and the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST) for financial support.  We also thank the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History for access to the collection.  Two anonymous reviewers provided constructive suggestions and improvements.  However, any remaining oversights remain our responsibility.


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