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Taphonomy : Encyclopedia of Geography

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Taphonomy is a multidisciplinary, multitasking body of knowledge that studies the processes affecting
organic remains after death—that is, the transition of these remains from the biosphere into the
lithosphere. Taphonomic studies are key to paleobiology, paleontology, archaeology, geology, and
geography, among other disciplines, as they impinge directly on our capacity to reconstruct
paleoenvironments and past biotas. They do so by understanding the postmortem processes on biological
materials and how they affect the fossil record—broadly defined as the set of nonliving remains and traces
of organisms—and the information therein.
The term taphonomy, from the Greek taphos and nomos (the “laws of burial”), was coined by Ivan
Efremov in 1940, although such inquiries had been carried out well before, notably by German
paleontologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These researchers focused primarily on
paleoenvironmental reconstruction, while Efremov and others emphasized information loss and biases
introduced in the fossil record. Other researchers, especially after the input by Anna Behrensmeyer, Susan
Kidwell, and Diane Gifford, have focused on the “positive” contributions of taphonomy as well. These
emphasize the preservation of the fossil record and the paleoecological and paleobiological information
contained in the signatures of the processes that have affected it through time. Moreover, all the recycling
pathways of biologically derived materials are informative to taphonomic enquiry.
The processes affecting organic remains from death to final burial, such as carnivore scavenging of
vertebrate carcasses, are different from those occurring from final burial until recovery, as is the case with
mineral replacement in different organic remains. The former are known as biostratinomy and the latter,
as diagenesis, and both constitute taphonomy. On infrequent occasions, as in the case of severe floods
and catastrophic death, rapid burial of organisms lead to large concentrations of exceptionally wellpreserved fossils, known as fossil lagerstätten.
Taphonomists study both direct and indirect evidence—that is, not only the organic remains themselves
but also the traces of different organisms, such as the tooth marks of a predator on bones or a leaf imprint
on a sedimentary matrix. These traces or signatures of activity by an organism are also known as
ichnofossils and commonly inform us of the interactions with its environment. Finally, they study the
geological context where the fossils and traces are deposited as well.
To understand and interpret all these lines of evidence, taphonomic principles are needed. As in other
historical sciences, the most powerful strategy for doing so is actualism—that is, the study of
contemporary, observable taphonomic processes producing effects analogous to those observed in the
fossil record, and their causes. This strategy has been key in taphonomy since the German
Aktuopaläontologie (invertebrate) program in the early 20th century. Observing present-day processes
and their contexts links causes and effects, thereby generating models that can be applied to the fossil
record by analogy. In some cases, experiments can help understand the effects of some processes as well.
Such studies require assuming that the processes operating in the past are essentially the same as those
operating in the present, although their rates and configurations and their interactions may well have
changed through time. This methodological assumption is called uniformitarianism.
Another important strategy is the comparative method, namely, the comparison of different fossil records,
which allows considering processes at a larger scale of operation. Deductions from general models and
strong links among different lines of evidence complement both strategies.
All these approaches allow reconstructing and interpreting the taphonomic histories of different fossils. It
should be noted that each specimen—that is, an individual organic remain or trace—has its own history,
which can differ from that of other specimens in the same assemblage. Some variables, such as
morphological and qualitative ones (e.g., chemical alterations), are monitored on each specimen. Other
variables, though, such as the quantitative and contextual ones (e.g., the spatial relationships among
different specimens), can only be assessed at the assemblage level. Therefore, analysis always begins at
the specimen level, while fossil assemblages, with their specific properties—such as specimen
arrangement, statistical trends in specimen properties, and the paleoecological information they bear—
turn out to be the main unit of analysis and comparison. The geological context bearing the assemblages
provides important, independent evidence as well that helps infer the taphonomic history of the fossil


L. UK: Cambridge University Press. as in the case of shellmound concentrations in coastal Brazil and Uruguay. Changes through time in taphonomic modes would thus generate megabiases.html 05/10/2010 . R. G. Taphonomy and paleobiology. which encompass fossil records resulting from similar processes (physical. M. (1991). P. . 103–147. Taphonomy: Releasing the data locked in the fossil record.Taphonomy : Encyclopedia of Geography Página 2 de 2 record.). Humans can not only be taphonomic agents but also the subject of taphonomic processes. Paleobiology vol. D. 2010. .com/geography/Print_n1116.sage-ereference. 365–438).) Deep time: Paleobiology's perspective.html>. (2001). Schiffer (Ed. & Briggs. 2010. pp. Inc. (Suppl. Behrensmeyer. Entry Citation: Muñoz. (Eds. 26 no. Sebastián Muñoz and Mariana Mondini Further Readings Allison. Wing (Eds. Cambridge. L. (1994). and Gastaldo. A. All these lines of evidence can be integrated at the landscape level so as to interpret taphonomic patterns and processes at a regional scale. D. © SAGE Publications. S. These can be isolated or can even modify whole landscapes. whereby very different questions are posed at varying scales. ed.sage-ereference. R. Kidwell. as has been studied by forensics and paleoanthropology. Taphonomy and paleoecology: A critical review of archaeology's sister disciplines. "Taphonomy. where humans are the main taphonomic agents. In D. P. A. One particular taphonomic mode is archaeological accumulations. K. to No. Hence. 5 Oct.). Vertebrate taphonomy. A more general approach considers taphonomic modes. New York: Academic Press. by shedding light on the accumulation processes that concentrated the fossils under study. for instance. (1981). A. pp. chemical. and biological). Advances in archaeological method and theory (Vol." Encyclopedia of Geography. <http://www. different taphonomic modes are characterized by different biases. two disciplines where taphonomy is also central. Lyman. and Mariana Mondini. Sebastián. New York: Plenum Press. Erwin & S. http://www. 4) pp. that contributes to the richness of this research field. SAGE Publications. . . It is the multidisciplinary nature of taphonomy. involving similar preservational contexts. B. 4 . A. Gifford. In M.