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The science of taphonomy explores the ways in which organic residues migrate from the biosphere to the lithosphere. This comprises actions that take place after an organism dies (or loses its components), including decomposition, burial, and preservation as mineralized fossils or other stable biomaterials.


When a fossil structure exhibits the deteriorated, poorly preserved remains of several distinct taxonomic groups as opposed to just one, it is known as a taphomorph.

Taphonomy may be explored in a broad variety of species, including microbes, plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates—from basic protists to complex eukaryotes. Taphonomy, which frequently focuses on the physical remains of the species, may also comprise biomolecules and traces like trackways, tunnels, and excrement. Only a tiny fraction of the earth’s previous occupants have left behind fossils; however, some biological relics are extraordinarily frequent while many others are uncommon or nonexistent. Understanding the biases coming from the types of species and habitats that are and are not represented in the fossil record is vital for making sense of the limited sampling of ancient life.

Taphonomy’s Purposes

In general, the study of taphonomy aims to grasp the multiple physical, chemical, and biological processes that impact organic remains, as well as the evidence (clues) that may be used to localize these processes. It is very interdisciplinary and provides various options for research at the nexuses of biology, geology, paleontology, anthropology, archaeology, forensic science, ecology, and biogeochemistry in both present and ancient time periods. Taphonomy is still expanding and becoming increasingly relevant in a range of scientific domains, including conservation paleobiology. This emerging field of research looks at how human activity affects contemporary ecosystems. One method uses taphonomy in “live-dead” studies to show differences between the number of living species of marine invertebrates with shells and the remains of older communities that were more prosperous before human interference.

Taphonomy’s phases

Disarticulation, dispersion, accumulation, fossilization, and mechanical change are the five main stages of taphonomy.

  1. As the body decomposes, the bones become disarticulated because the flesh and tendons that originally held the bones together are no longer present.
  2. Dispersal is the separation of an organism’s pieces brought on by natural occurrences (i.e., floods, scavengers, etc.). (i.e., floods, scavengers, etc.).
  3. Accumulation occurs when organic and/or inorganic components congregate in one location (scavengers or human activity).
  4. A fossil is generated when mineral-rich groundwater penetrates biological materials and fills in the gaps.
  5. Taphonomy concludes with mechanical alteration, the procedure that modifies the relics (for example, freeze-thaw, compaction, transport, and burial).

It should be emphasized that these “stages” interact as well as being sequential. For instance, because of bacteria, chemical changes occur at every stage of the process. As soon as an organism dies, “changes” start to occur because released enzymes degrade the tissues’ organic contents and because tissues that have been calcified like bone, enamel, and dentin have both organic and mineral components. Additionally, the organisms (whether they be plant or animal) are generally dead as a predator “killed” them. Both the bones’ and the flesh’s composition are changed during digestion.

Areas of Taphonomy research

1. Paleontology

Although fossilized creatures are ubiquitous in sedimentary strata, paleontologists cannot make the most accurate judgements about their lives and ecologies without being aware of the procedures that led to their fossilization. For example, if a fossil collection contains more of one type of fossil than another, one would assume that the organism was present in greater numbers or that its remains were more resistant to disintegration.

Taphonomic information began to be employed in many paleontological subfields, including paleobiology, paleoceanography, ichnology (the study of trace fossils), and biostratigraphy, in the late 20th century. Paleontologists have been able to give novel and crucial interpretations and linkages that would have otherwise been buried in the fossil record by studying the oceanographic and ethological implications of observed taphonomic patterns.

2. Forensic Science

In the past 15 years, the popularity of the relatively new science of forensic taphonomy has increased.

Bio taphonomy and Geo taphonomy are the two forensic taphonomy subfields. Bio Taphonomy studies how the organism has broken down and/or been destroyed. Environmental factors, external variables, individual factors, characteristics linked to the organism itself (such as body size, age, etc.), and cultural components, aspects specific to any cultural traditions that might affect the decomposition, are the primary factors that determine this branch (burial practices). Geo Taphonomy is the study of how burial rituals and the burial itself affect the environment. This includes soil disturbances and tool marks from the grave excavation, disruption of plant growth and the pH of the soil produced by the rotting body, and changes to the area’s drainage owing to the introduction of an artificial mass. Read about Forensic Archaeology

3. Ecology and archaeology

To understand how plant and animal remnants, including human remains, collect and differentially preserve within ancient sites, archaeologists research taphonomic processes. The purpose of the multidisciplinary field of inquiry known as environmental archaeology is to grasp past interactions between humans and their environments. Zooarchaeology, paleobotany, and geoarchaeology are three core environmental archaeology subfields. Due to taphonomy, specialists can establish what things or remains they came across both before and after the initial burials. Archaeologists research taphonomic processes. The purpose of the multidisciplinary field of inquiry known as environmental archaeology is to grasp past interactions between humans and their environments. Zooarchaeology, paleobotany, and geoarchaeology are three of the core subfields of environmental archaeology. Due to taphonomy, specialists can establish what things or remains they came across both before and after the initial burial. Environmental archaeology’s concentration in zooarchaeology analyzes taphonomic processes on animal remains. The most prevalent zooarchaeological acknowledged processes are heat modification (burns), cut marks, worked bone, and gnaw marks. Bone that has been thermally altered demonstrates the use of fire and animal processing. Zoo Archaeologists may gain information about tool use or food preparation from cut marks and worked bones. Taphonomy helps environmental archaeologists more thoroughly comprehend how a civilization interacted with its surrounding circumstances and inhabitants when there is little to no written record.


Researchers from a broad variety of fields may trace the history of both natural and cultural things using taphonomic processes. The study of taphonomy may help us grasp the ecosystems of the past from the point of death or burial until excavation. Gaining background information is vital when investigating history in order to fully appreciate the facts. These insights are frequently used to gain a better understanding of contemporary cultural or environmental issues.

FAQs about Taphonomy

See Also

Archaeological EthicsEnvironmental ArchaeologyEthnoarchaeology
Computational ArchaeologyUrban ArchaeologyPrehistoric Archaeology
Cultural Resource ManagementBioarchaeologyZooarchaeology
Archaeological ScienceArchaeometryGeoarchaeology
Computational ArchaeologyArchaeogeneticsMaritime Archaeology
Battlefied ArchaeologyGrave RobberyArchaeobotany
History of ArchaeologyArchaeological ExcavationUnderwater Archaeology
Gender ArchaeologyArchaeological Field SurveyCognitive Archaeology
Feminist ArchaeologyMuseum StudiesLandscape Archaeology
Industrial ArchaeologyExperimental ArchaeologyForensic Archaeology
Archaeological PracticeEcofactsPaleoarchaeology
Historical ArchaeologyPaleopathologyAfrican Archaeology
European ArchaeologyAustralian ArchaeologyRussain Archaeology
Archaeology in IsraelAmerican ArchaeologyArchaeology in China
Medieval ArchaeologyBiblical ArchaeologyNear Eastern Archaeology
Archaeological Dating MethodsPrinciples of Prehistoric ArchaeologyArchaeological Geophysics
Drishti Kalra - Author at Anthroholic
Drishti Kalra

Drishti Kalra is an Assistant professor at DCAC College in the Department of History, at Delhi University. She is also a PhD Research scholar at the Department of History at Delhi University. She has also been employed as a Research Assistant on two projects at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and JNU. Currently, she is also working as a Research Associate at the DU Centenary Project on the "History of Delhi University". She has lately held positions with institutions such as The Telegraph, Médecins Sans Frontières, Intern, and Hindu Business Line.

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