JQSR-D-23-00618_R1 in revision for quaternary science reviews nondestructive geochemical characterization of fossil hominin taphonomy and burial history

Theodore M. Present, Elizabeth M. Niespolo, Catherine E. Clarke, Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Louise N. Leakey, Meave G. Leakey, Carrie Mongle, Anton Du Plessis, Paul Northrup, Ryan V. Tappero, Deming Yang, E. Troy Rasbury, Fredrick E. Grine

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To date, only three Homo habilis specimens have been discovered that have associated craniodental and postcranial elements, providing a limited fossil record of the ontogeny and morphology of early members of the genus Homo. Recently, a nearly complete dentition, likely attributable to H. habilis, was discovered and excavated from early Pleistocene-age fluvial-lacustrine sediments of the upper Burgi Member of the Koobi Fora Formation at site F25787 in Area 13, near Ileret, Kenya. On the surface less than 15 m away, at site F25966, postcranial elements were found, which, if from the same individual as the nearby dentition, would represent the fourth associated craniodental and postcranial assemblage of this species. We developed a geochemical taphonomic history of these ca. 2 Ma hominin fossils using nondestructive X-ray based microanalytical tools (synchrotron and benchtop X-ray fluorescence chemical imaging and micro- and nano-computed tomography volumetric reconstruction), bulk analyses of sediments and paleosols at the excavation sites, and sedimentologic and stratigraphic observations. We integrate the chemical and physical taphonomic histories to test whether teeth (excavated in situ) and postcranial bones (eroded onto the outcrop surface) derive from a single individual. Minor differences in taphonomic history are attributable to the different biomineral properties of the dental and osseous components and to differences in physical damage during early post-mortem scavenging, dispersal, and burial in adjacent depositional settings. Microscale geochemical mapping enabled the temporal ordination of chemical and physical events in the specimens’ chemical taphonomic histories. Specifically, authigenic Fe- and K-bearing clays and Y, U, and Sr uptake occurred in post-burial fractures in bones and were also incorporated pervasively throughout dentin in teeth. Barite mineralization occurred along the latest fractures in both materials, and as a coating on tooth roots. The stratigraphic, taphonomic, and geochemical evidence supports the interpretation that the hominin fossils represent a single individual. Successful application of these nondestructive sample characterization methods demonstrates capabilities for thorough interrogation of the taphonomic histories of other potential hominin fossil associations, enabling more robust and accurate palaeontologic constraints using those relationships.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number108525
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
StatePublished - Mar 15 2024
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • Geology


  • Fossil diagenesis
  • Fossilization
  • Geochemical taphonomy
  • Koobi Fora Formation
  • Pleistocene hominin
  • Turkana Basin
  • X-ray microanalysis


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