Understanding Time in Taphonomy: A 30-Year Field Study in Wales

Peter Andrews, Ph.D.
Natural History Museum, London, UK
Yolanda Fernández-Jalvo, Ph.D., MSc
Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (CSIC), Madrid, Spain

Series: Origin, Evolution and Geological History of the Earth
BISAC: SCI031000




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Understanding Time in Taphonomy investigates time as it affects taphonomy. All taphonomic agents operate through time, which may be long or short, so time adds another dimension to taphonomic change. The processes and modifications recorded in fossils can tell us how long the fossils took to accumulate and the geological/biological/ environmental context in which they fossilized.

Measuring time in taphonomy requires long-term studies of taphonomic processes operating at the present time. In 1976, one of the authors (PA) started a 30-year monitoring project of animals that died natural deaths at Neuadd in Wales. The study area of 680ha of upland heathland, woodland and rough grazing were monitored. Over 100 sheep, horses, foxes, badgers, rabbits and small mammals were monitored, but only 56 yielded useful results. YFJ has also begun a similar study at Riofrio in Spain, and other long-term studies are reviewed.

This 30-year study highlighted several time-specific taphonomic issues. Trampling of Neuadd specimens produced pitting and superficial scratching found commonly on fossils. Longer striations mimicking cut marks are common, particularly on bones in rocky substrates. The number and morphology of these pseudo-cut-marks are compared with cut marks made during human butchery. There is only a weak relationship with exposure time.

The extreme effects of water and wind at Neuadd quickly dispersed body parts. Modifications similar to trampling and butchery were produced in running water. In still water, three modification stages are identified: Stage 1, which is 3-5 years with broad flaking; stage 2, 10-12 years with extreme flaking and loss of surface bone; and stage 3, >18 years with deep tissue loss.

Weathering at Neuadd has a time-scale that is different from the one established for tropical environments: At 0-5 years, 92% of bones are unweathered, with 8% at stage 1; at 6 to 10 years, 73% of bones are unweathered, with 27% at stage 1; at 15 to 25 years, 17% of bones are unweathered, with 63% at stage 1 and 20% of bones at stage 2; at 30 to 35 years, only one skull survived, and it is at stage 1 weathering.

Monitoring of buried bones at Neuadd shows three time-scales of modifications resulting from soil corrosion: Progressive corrosion under dense vegetation cover with high humidity from 2 to 23 years; increasing root marks from 2 to 23 years; and corrosion from the action of lower plants such as moss and algae in 3 to 11 years.

The extent and sizes of carnivore and herbivore chewing marks was found to have no usable timescale. Dispersal of bones is slow at Neuadd and is related strongly both to the nature of the environment and to the size of the animals. Three timescales have been identified: Dispersal over 15 years is greatest for large animals in open environments, lower for medium sized animals like sheep, and the least for small and medium size animals in dense vegetation.

Future monitoring projects could use electronic marking chips on single specimens, camera traps, GPS, the Global Weathering Project, radioactive markers on bones, and aerial mapping, backed up with experimental work in controlled conditions.


Chapter 1. Introduction

Chapter 2. Study Area and Methods

Chapter 3. Trampling in the Neuadd Study Area

Chapter 4. Water as a Techonomic Agent at Neuadd

Chapter 5. Weather as a Taphonomic Agent at Neuadd

Chapter 6. Soil Corrosion at Neuadd

Chapter 7. Carnivore Modifications of Neuadd Bones

Chapter 8. Herbivore Modifications of Neuadd Bones

Chapter 9. Disarticulation and Dispersal of Neuadd Specimens

Chapter 10. Discussion

Chapter 11. Concluding Remarks



"Many palaeontologists and archaeologists study the end products of fossilisation but rarely think about the processes that led to that end product, what was lost along the way, and how long the processes took. Peter and Yolanda have spent much of their research careers carefully recording the neglected but earliest stages of that process and in this valuable and profusely illustrated book, they lay out their findings so far from a rural study area in Wales." - Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum, London

"When genius, expertise, and passion for Taphonomy converge, books like this come up. Only two great masters of Taphonomy like Peter Andrews and Yolanda Fernández-Jalvo could address such a crucial aspect of the fossilization process as TIME is. The actualistic works developed through long periods to know how taphonomic modifications occur and evolve are scarce, so this book is key to understanding the time scale of past events." - Isabel Cáceres, Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona (URV), IPHES

"I am delighted to see that Nova is publishing the eagerly-awaited results of Peter Andrews’s and Yolanda Fernandez-Jalvo’s groundbreaking 30-year project monitoring taphonomic changes registered on bones of naturally-dead animals at Neuadd in Wales. This book follows their acclaimed book Owls Caves and Fossils (1990) on the taphonomy of owl and small mammal prey residues and will provide observations on temperate conditions and contexts that can be compared with those from East Africa. Both authors are outstanding pioneers in the field of taphonomy and have made significant contributions to taphonomy and palaeontology, through their insightful projects and observations, which have earned them well-deserved international reputations." - Graham Avery, University of Cape Town, South Africa

"Peter Andrews and Yolanda Fernández-Jalvo continue to be leaders in the field of taphonomy. There are very few long-term studies of taphonomic processes of animals that have died natural deaths, which makes the information contained in this book a unique and important contribution to this field. The comparison they make of the process of weathering in a temperate environment is particularly useful, as the only other major longitudinal study of weather has been done in a tropical environment." - Briana Pobiner, Smithsonian Institution

"Peter Andrews and Yolanda Fernández-Jalvo are without question the most luminous stars of experimental taphonomy today. Their long-term experiments address questions that have long remained without answer and the long-awaited results promise nothing less than a new synthesis of taphonomic understanding at the process level. If ever there was a book on taphonomy that I wanted to read it is this one." - Mikael Fortelius, University of Helsinki, Finland

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