Taphonomical analysis allows us to understand the processes that underlie site formation, as well as provide insights into the modification and composition of studied fossil materials. Taphonomy has become crucial to many scientific fields, providing conceptual advances through a renewal of models, protocols, and paradigms. In these studies, trans-disciplinary approaches (geology, palaeontology, biology, ecology, archaeology) have been developed using a wide array of methodologies. In addition, experimental work on modern assemblages, focusing on specific geological and biological processes (‘actualism’), are used to make referential data and proxies. This Collection contributes to the field’s methodological development, while gathering research articles investigating Quaternary period bone assemblages, with special interest in the Pleistocene.
Fossil vertebrate assemblages from archaeological sites pose an interpretive challenge for modern-day researchers. Humans, carnivores, rodents, water courses, geochemical solutions, and rock-falls are just some of the agents and processes that could produce or alter an osteological accumulation. Discriminating between products derived from human behaviour, and those produced by physical, chemical, geological, or biological processes, is the first step in tackling any archaeological study. Taphonomy, a discipline that addresses the origin and history of accumulations from the perspective of site formation, provides an essential multi- and trans-disciplinary framework for making accurate interpretations1.
The definition of Taphonomy was first established by Efremov2 as the study of living organisms’ transition from the biosphere to the lithosphere—that is, the study of the processes affecting the transition of a past living organisms’ remains (and their signatures) to the lithosphere, as can be observed in prehistoric sites. However, this conceptual subsystem of Palaeontology is not only applicable to prehistoric times, and it may cover a broader time range when more recent historical accounts are examined (e.g.3,4,5). Taphonomy, however, did not really emerge as a scientific discipline within Archaeology until the 1980s, when studies took a new direction, especially those linked to the Plio-Pleistocene record6,7,8. The focus of taphonomic research was then placed on comprehending how palaeoecological and palaeobiological information had been altered during this transition, establishing links between taphocoenoses and palaeobiocoenoses9,10.
The identification of bone surface modifications generated by different taphonomic agents is a key element in modern archaeology and applied forensic sciences. Amongst the different types of bone damage, gnawing marks contain valuable information to explore and understand the formation processes of archeo-paleontological sites, environments, and their associated ecosystems. Many authors have paid special interest to tooth marks generated by different animals, either through the consumption of soft tissues (e.g., meat, tendon, cartilage) or other practices of biological origin (e.g.11). This Collection has several articles focused on the taphonomic signature that carnivores such as felids, canids, hyenas, and ursids leave on bones12,13,14,15,16. Of special interest is the study conducted by Courtenay et al.15, in which a new alternative approach using 3D modelling, geometric morphometrics, and machine learning algorithms is proposed to differentiate the tooth marks of different predators; their approach reaches a classification rate of between 88 and 98% accuracy, with balanced overall evaluation metrics across all datasets. This study, together with those developed by Yravedra et al.12, Cifuentes-Alcobendas and Domínguez-Rodrigo17, and Domínguez-Rodrigo et al.18 in this Collection, demonstrates that these advanced data science techniques, combined with other taphonomic evidence sources, provide a valuable contribution to the identification of agents in archaeological sites. The application of new technology in Taphonomy has undoubtedly led to exponential growth in the field, through the incorporation, updating, and continuous evaluation of new methodological approaches. In this regard, the study by Domínguez-Rodrigo et al.18 is relevant; by using artificial intelligence through computer vision techniques—based on convolutional neural networks—the authors report the highest documented rate to date of accurate classification (92%) of cut, tooth, and trampling marks in controlled experimental bone modifications.
Quaternary taphonomic studies provide knowledge of fossil humans, their ecologies, and their cultures. For this reason, this Collection treats as its nucleus those studies focusing on subsistence strategies and hominin behaviour, with a special emphasis on the Pleistocene (although studies framed in the Holocene are also included; e.g.19,20,21,22,23,24,25,26,27). These studies are essential for understanding the origin and history of prehistoric sites, as well as the climatic and environmental contexts in which humans lived and evolved. Amongst these contributions, I would like to highlight the work of Daujeard et al.20, which presents some of the earliest evidence of cut, percussion, and human gnawing marks on faunal specimens associated with lithic knapping tasks in a well-documented stratified cave context in North Africa (Grotte des Rhinocéros at Casablanca, Morocco). As an example of multidisciplinarity applied to subsistence and behavioural studies, it is worth highlighting the work of Balzeau et al.26, which includes geochronological data (14C and OSL), Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS) and ancient DNA data, geological and stratigraphic information, and taphonomic analysis of the archaeological context and Neanderthal skeleton of the La Ferrassie 8 (LF8), in order to evaluate if a burial is the most parsimonious explanation for LF8.
The Collection also includes experimental works on modern assemblages with the aim of creating models and analogies that help us infer the processes that occurred in the past and understand the formation processes of bone accumulations at archaeological sites. An example is the work developed by Duches et al.28, where the authors conduct ballistic experiments to distinguish projectile impact marks from other taphonomic modifications, with the objective of developing a widely applicable diagnostic framework to an archaeological context dated to the Late Glacial in the Italian Alps (Riparo I of Grotte Verdi di Pradis).
Finally, the present Collection is still open for submissions on a rolling basis, and with new studies continuing to be submitted, we expect the Collection to serve as a one-stop overview of current research in Taphonomy.
Bonnichsen, R. & Sorg, M. H. Bone Modification Center for the Study of the First Americans (University of Maine, 1989).
Efremov, L. A. Taphonomy a new branch of Paleontology. Pan Am.Geol. 74(2), 81–93 (1940).
Knox, H. Notice Relevant to the Habits of Hyaena in Southern Africa (Transitions of the Wernerian Natural history Society, 1822).
Thirria, E. Statiqueminéralogique et géologie du département de la Haute-Loire Besanc¸on Outhenin Chalande (1833).
Dawkins, W. & Boyd, H. Cave Hunting Research of the Evidence of Caves Respecting the Early Inhabitants of Europe Early Man in Britain (Macmillian & Co., 1874).
Binford, L. R. Bones: Ancient Men, Modern Myths (Academic Press, 1981).
Brain, C. K. Hunters or the Hunted? An Introduction to African Cave Taphonomy (University of Chicago Press, 1981).
Shipman, P. Life History of a Fossil. An introduction to Taphonomy and Paleoecology (Harvard University Press, 1981).
Fernández-López, S. Taphonomic alteration and evolutionary taphonomy. J. Taphon. 4, 111–142 (2006).
Domínguez-Rodrigo, M. How Can Taphonomy Be Defined in the XXI Century?. J. Taphon. 9(1), 1–13 (2011).
Courtenay, L. A. et al. Obtaining new resolutions in carnivore tooth pit morphological analyses: A methodological update for digital taphonomy. PLoS ONE 15(10), e0240328 (2020).
Yravedra, J. et al. The use of canid tooth marks on bone for the identification of livestock predation. Sci. Rep. 9, 16301 (2019).
Rodríguez-Hidalgo, A. et al. Taphonomic criteria for identifying Iberian lynx dens in quaternary deposits. Sci. Rep. 10, 7225 (2020).
Lloveras, L., Nadal, J. & Fullola, J. M. Distinguishing the taphonomic signature of wolves from humans and other predators on small prey assemblages. Sci. Rep. 10, 8030 (2020).
Courtenay, L. A. et al. Developments in data science solutions for carnivore tooth pit classification. Sci. Rep. 11, 10209 (2021).
Domínguez-Rodrigo, M. et al. A 3D taphonomic model of long bone modification by lions in medium-sized ungulate carcasses. Sci. Rep. 11, 4944 (2021).
Cifuentes-Alcobendas, G. & Domínguez-Rodrigo, M. Deep learning and taphonomy: High accuracy in the classification of cut marks made on fleshed and defleshed bones using convolutional neural networks. Sci. Rep. 9, 18933 (2019).
Domínguez-Rodrigo, M. et al. Artificial intelligence provides greater accuracy in the classification of modern and ancient bone surface modifications. Sci. Rep. 10, 18862 (2020).
Espigares, M. P., Palmqvist, P. & Guerra-Merchán, A. The earliest cut marks of Europe: A discussion on hominin subsistence patterns in the Orce sites (Baza basin, SE Spain). Sci. Rep. 9, 15408 (2019).
Daujeard, C. et al. Earliest African evidence of carcass processing and consumption in cave at 700 ka, Casablanca, Morocco. Sci. Rep. 10, 4761 (2020).
Radovčić, D. et al. Surface analysis of an eagle talon from Krapina. Sci. Rep. 10, 6329 (2020).
Val, A. et al. Human exploitation of nocturnal felines at Diepkloof Rock Shelter provides further evidence for symbolic behaviours during the Middle Stone Age. Sci. Rep. 10, 6424 (2020).
Ingicco, T. et al. Taphonomy and chronosequence of the 709 ka Kalinga site formation (Luzon Island, Philippines). Sci. Rep. 10, 11081 (2020).
Sanz, M. et al. Early evidence of fire in south-western Europe: The Acheulean site of Gruta da Aroeira (Torres Novas, Portugal). Sci. Rep. 10, 12053 (2020).
Hatala, K. G. et al. Snapshots of human anatomy, locomotion, and behavior from Late Pleistocene footprints at EngareSero, Tanzania. Sci. Rep. 10, 7740 (2020).
Balzeau, A. et al. Pluridisciplinary evidence for burial for the La Ferrassie 8 Neandertal child. Sci. Rep. 10, 21230 (2020).
Luzón, C. et al. Taphonomic and spatial analyses from the Early Pleistocene site of VentaMicena 4 (Orce, Guadix-Baza Basin, southern Spain). Sci. Rep. 11, 13977 (2021).
Duches, R. et al. Experimental and archaeological data for the identification of projectile impact marks on small-sized mammals. Sci. Rep. 10, 9092 (2020).
I would like to thank all researchers and colleagues for submitting their interesting contributions, all peer-reviewers for helping improve the first version of the manuscripts, and the Scientific Reports staff editors for their kind invitation to propose and lead this Collection. R.B. develops her work within the Spanish MINECO/FEDER project PID2019-104949GB-I00 and the Generalitat de Catalunya-AGAUR projects 2017 SGR 836 and CLT009/18/00055. R.B. is supported by a Ramón y Cajal research contract by the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (RYC2019-026386-I). This work contributes to the “María de Maeztu” Program for Units of Excellence of the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation awarded to the IPHES (CEX2019-000945-M).
The author declares no competing interests.
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Blasco, R. Quaternary taphonomy: understanding the past through traces. Sci Rep 12, 7112 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-10473-9