Stephen R. Merritt, PhD.

Assistant Professor

Contact Info

Office: Heritage Hall 312

Mailing address:
1401 University Blvd.
HHB 312
Birmingham, AL 35294-1152

Phone: (205) 934-1742


Dr. Merritt explores evidence of hominins’ dietary shift toward large mammal carcass consumption, an ecological transition that put our ancestors in direct competition with ancient Carnivore guild members. As a zooarchaeologist and paleoanthropologist, I use information generated in carefully constructed modern-day experiments to reconstruct the role ancient humans and carnivores played in the formation of fragmentary bone assemblages. Currently, I am a Taphonomist for the Koobi Fora Paleoanthropology Research Project and a Field Director for the Koobi Fora Field School in Northern Kenya.

Observing modern ecosystems often helps paleoanthropologists understand what was happening in the past. This zebra was killed by lions and later eaten by vultures, but the marrow in the leg bones and the brain remain as nutritious sources of protein and fat for scavengers. To access similar resources, ancient humans would need stone tools to slice through the thick hide, disarticulate the limbs, and break into the bones, and would need to find these resources before other scavengers like hyenas.


Using stone tools to butcher a carcass creates cut marks, linear incisions into the bone surface whose location may reveal which tissues were sliced. Here, a large antelope femur has cut marks that indicate it was disarticulated from the hip joint.

A group of men from the Dassanech tribe from Northern Kenya skin a cow before defleshing it with replicated stone tools in an experimental butchery trial. Observing how modern people butcher large animals and the patterns of cut marks that are produced on the skeleton helps us interpret the ancient butchery behaviors that produced archaeological cut marks.


Molds of cut marks produced during experimental butchery are prepared in order to measure cut mark cross-sectional size and the geometric organization of individual striae in cut mark clusters. These attributes were traditionally linked to butchery behaviors like the use of different stone tools types. The results of my work suggest a more parsimonious explanation; changes in cut mark size and organization are influenced by bone density and reflect whether a specimen was defleshed or disarticulated.

Expertise and Interests
  • paleoanthropology
  • zooarchaeology
  • taphonomy
  • actualistic studies
  • paleoecology
  • Hominin-Carnivore interaction
  • butchery studies


Ph.D., Anthropology, Rutgers University, 2011
M.A., Anthropology, Rutgers University, 2005
B.S., Evolutionary Anthropology, Rutgers University, 2000

Recent Publication

Merritt, S.R. 2012. Factors affecting Early Stone Age cut mark cross-sectional size: implications from actualistic butchery trials. Journal of Archaeological Science 39:2984-2994