De-fleshing Giant Catfish

Comparative Fishbone Collection

The Mekong River with its tributaries, lakes, and high estuary ecosystems supports one of the richest fish fauna in Asia, the study of which has only recently begun. The total number of species recorded or expected from the Mekong, as inferred from the known zoogeography of Southeast Asia, includes about 1.200 species. This number will undoubtedly increase as additional taxonomic studies and fish surveys are completed. For Cambodia alone, approximately 500 species have been recorded. This enormous richness of fish taxa is due to the great variety of habitats in the Cambodian water bodies.


This results in an extremely high annual per capita consumption of 65.5 kg of fish, higher than the neighbouring countries such as Vietnam with 60.2 kg, Thailand with 52.7 kg, and Lao PDR with 42.2 kg. Consequently, with increasing population and inconsiderate fishing techniques, some species have become extinct and others are still evolving.


In Cambodia, Archaeozoology of fishes has only recently begun to be established at the Faculty of Archaeology, Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA). To enable the identification of fishbones from archaeological sites, in 1997 a fishbone collection was initiated under the scientific guidance of Barbara and Dr. Gerd ALBRECHT from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). From the year 2000 on, the enlargement of the collection was possible through the financial support of the Heinrich-Boell-Foundation, Germany.

At present the fishbone collection contains 179 species of fish with up to 7 individuals from each species. This is only the beginning of the comparative collection that would be needed for a correct species identification of fish present in archaeological samples. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that this collection is extended in the future. The methodology employed is fairly simple, involving an inventory of fishes available at local markets or on shore where fishermen dock. Most species are collected from the Mekong basin; some are from different regions across the country.


The identification of fishbones usually is carried out by directly comparing the morphology of the bones with the fish skeletons of known species and size in the reference collection. It has to be emphasised that it is often not possible to identify the fish bone material beyond the level of family and only sometimes to genus and occasionally to species.


The results give us proof of the presence and diversity of fish in the past, the ecology and the environment of the site, the nutritional levels, the role of fisheries and the importance of fish, e.g. as burial offering, and even hints concerning trading and exchange.

Fishbone Inventory

Drying Bones

Fishbone collection in Laboratory