Fossils only represent a tiny fraction of creatures that existed in the past. It is extremely difficult for an organism to become a fossil. After all, organisms are designed to deteriorate after they die. Bacteria, insects, scavengers, weather, and environment all aid in the process that breaks down organisms so their elements can be returned to Earth to maintain ecosystems (Stodder 2008). Fossilization, therefore, is the preservation of an organism against these natural decay processes (Figure 7.9).
For fossilization to occur, several important things must happen. First, the organism must be protected from things like bacterial activity, scavengers, and temperature and moisture fluctuations. A stable environment is important. This means that the organism should not be exposed to significant fluctuations in temperature, humidity, and weather patterns. Changes to moisture and temperature cause the organic tissues to expand and contract repeatedly, which will eventually cause microfractures and break down (Stodder 2008). Soft tissue like organs, muscle, and skin are more easily broken down in the decay process; therefore, they are less likely to be preserved. Bones and teeth, however, last much longer and are more common in the fossil record (Williams 2004, 207).
Wetlands are a particularly good area for preservation because they allow for rapid permanent burial and a stable moisture environment. That is why many fossils are found in and around ancient lakes and river systems. Waterlogged sites can also be naturally anaerobic (without oxygen). Much of the bacteria that causes decay is already present in our gut and can begin the decomposition process shortly after death during putrefaction (Booth et al. 2015). Since oxygen is necessary for the body’s bacteria to break down organic material, the decay process is significantly slowed or halted in anaerobic conditions.
The next step in the fossilization process is sediment accumulation. The sediments cover and protect the organism from the environment. They, along with water, provide the minerals that will eventually become the fossil (Williams 2004, 31). Sediment accumulation also provides the pressure needed for mineralization to take place. Lithification is when the weight and pressure of the sediments squeeze out extra fluids and replace the voids that appear with minerals from the surrounding sediments. Finally, we have permineralization. This is when the organism is fully replaced by minerals from the sediments. A fossil is really a mineral copy of the original organism (Williams 2004, 31).
Types of Fossils
Plants make up the majority of fossilized materials. One of the most common plants existing today, the fern, has been found in fossilized form many times. Other plants that no longer exist or the early ancestors of modern plants come in fossilized forms as well. It is through these fossils that we can discover how plants evolved and learn about the climate of Earth over different periods of time.
Another type of fossilized plant is petrified wood. This fossil is created when actual pieces of wood—such as the trunk of a tree—mineralize and turn into rock. Petrified wood is a combination of silica, calcite, and quartz, and it is both heavy and brittle. Petrified wood can be colorful and is generally aesthetically pleasing because all the features of the original tree’s composition are illuminated through mineralization (Figure 7.10). There are a number of places all over the world where petrified wood “forests” can be found, but there is an excellent assemblage in Arizona, at the Petrified Forest National Park. At this site, evidence relating to the environment of the area some 225 mya is on display.
We are more familiar with the fossils of early animals because natural history museums have exhibits of dinosaurs and extinct mammals. However, there are a number of fossilized hominin remains that provide a picture of the fossil record over the course of our evolution from primates. The term hominins includes all human ancestors who existed after the evolutionary split from chimpanzees and bonobos, some six to seven mya. Modern humans are Homo sapiens, but hominins can include much earlier versions of humans. One such hominin is “Lucy” (AL 288-1), the 3.2 million-year-old fossil of Australopithecus afarensis that was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 (Figure 7.11). Until recently, Lucy was the most complete and oldest hominin fossil, with 40% of her skeleton preserved (see Chapter 9 for more information about Lucy). In 1994, an Australopithecus fossil nicknamed “Little Foot” (Stw 573) was located in the World Heritage Site at Sterkfontein Caves (“the Cradle of Humankind”) in South Africa. Little Foot is more complete than Lucy and possibly the oldest fossil that has so far been found, dating to at least 3.6 million years (Granger et al. 2015). The ankle bones of the fossil were extricated from the matrix of concrete-like rock, revealing that the bones of the ankles and feet indicate bipedalism (University of Witwatersrand 2017).
Both the Lucy and Little Foot fossils date back to the Pliocene (5.8 to 2.3 mya). Older hominin fossils from the late Miocene (7.25 to 5.5 mya) have been located, although they are much less complete. The oldest hominin fossil is a fragmentary skull named Sahelanthropus tchadensis, found in Northern Chad and dating to circa seven mya (Lebatard et al. 2008). It is through the discovery, dating, and study of primate and early hominin fossils that we find physical evidence of the evolutionary timeline of humans.
Asphalt, a form of crude oil, can also yield fossilized remains. Asphalt is commonly referred to in error as tar because of its viscous nature and dark color. A famous fossil site from California is La Brea Tar Pits in downtown Los Angeles (Figure 7.12). In the middle of the busy city on Wilshire Boulevard, asphalt (not tar) bubbles up through seeps (cracks) in the sidewalk. The La Brea Tar Pits Museum provides an incredible look at the both extinct and extant animals that lived in the Los Angeles Basin 40,000–11,000 years ago. These animals became entrapped in the asphalt during the Pleistocene and perished in place. Ongoing excavations have yielded millions of fossils, including megafauna such as American mastodons and incomplete skeletons of extinct species of dire wolves, Canis dirus, and the saber-toothed cat, Smilodon fatalis (Figure 7.13). Fossilized remains of plants have also been found in the asphalt. The remains of one person have also been found at the tar pits. Referred to as La Brea Woman, the remains were found in 1914 and were subsequently dated to around 10,250 years ago. The La Brea Woman was a likely female individual who was 17–28 years old at the time of her death, with a height of under five feet (Spray 2022). She is thought to have died from blunt force trauma to her head, famously making her Los Angeles’s first documented homicide victim (Spray 2022). (Learn more about her in the Special Topic box, “Necropolitics,” below.) Between the fossils of animals and those of plants, paleontologists have a good idea of the way the Los Angeles Basin looked and what the climate in the area was like many thousands of years ago.
Most fossils are found in sedimentary rock. This type of rock has been formed from deposits of minerals over millions of years in bodies of water on Earth’s surface. Some examples include shale, limestone, and siltstone. Sedimentary rock typically has a layered appearance. However, fossils have been found in igneous rock as well. Igneous rock is volcanic rock that is created from cooled molten lava. It is rare for fossils to survive molten lava, and it is estimated that only 2% of all fossils have been found in igneous rock (Ingber 2012). Part of a giant rhinocerotid skull dating back 9.2 mya to the Miocene was discovered in Cappadocia, Turkey, in 2010. The fossil was a remarkable find because the eruption of the Çardak caldera was so sudden that it simply dehydrated and “baked” the animal (Antoine et al. 2012).
Depending on the specific circumstances of weather and time, even footprints can become fossilized. Footprints fall into the category of trace fossils, which includes other evidence of biological activity such as nests, burrows, tooth marks, and shells. A well-known example of trace fossils are the Laetoli footprints in Tanzania (Figure 7.14). More recently, archaeological investigations in North America have revealed fossil footprints which rewrite the history of people in the Americas at White Sands, New Mexico. You can read more about the Laetoli and White Sands footprints in the Dig Deeper box below.
Other fossilized footprints have been discovered around the world. At Pech Merle cave in the Dordogne region of France, archaeologists discovered two fossilized footprints. They then brought in indigenous trackers from Namibia to look for other footprints. The approach worked, as many other footprints belonging to as many as five individuals were discovered with the expert eyes of the trackers (Pastoors et al. 2017). These footprints date back 12,000 years (Granger Historical Picture Archive 2018).
Some of the more unappealing but still-fascinating trace fossils are bezoars and coprolite. Bezoars are hard, concrete-like substances found in the intestines of fossilized creatures. Bezoars start off like the hair balls that cats and rabbits accumulate from grooming, but they become hard, concrete-like substances in the intestines. If an animal with a hairball dies before expelling the hair ball mass and the organism becomes fossilized, that mass becomes a bezoar.
Coprolite is fossilized dung. One of the best collections of coprolites is affectionately known as the “Poozeum.” The collection includes a huge coprolite named “Precious” (Figure 7.15). Coprolite, like all fossilized materials, can be in matrix—meaning that the fossil is embedded in secondary rock. As unpleasant as it may seem to work with coprolites, remember that the organic material in dung has mineralized or has started to mineralize; therefore, it is no longer soft and is generally not smelly. Also, just as a doctor can tell a lot about health and diet from a stool sample, anthropologists can glean a great deal of information from coprolite about the diets of ancient animals and the environment in which the food sources existed. For instance, 65 million-year-old grass phytoliths (microscopic silica in plants) found in dinosaur coprolite in India revealed that grasses had been in existence much earlier than scientists initially believed (Taylor and O’Dea 2014, 133).
Pseudofossils are not to be mistaken for fake fossils, which have vexed scientists from time to time. A fake fossil is an item that is deliberately manipulated or manufactured to mislead scientists and the general public. In contrast, pseudofossils are not misrepresentations but rather misinterpretations of rocks that look like true fossilized remains (S. Brubaker, personal communication, March 9, 2018). Pseudofossils are the result of impressions or markings on rock, or even the way other inorganic materials react with the rock. A common example is dendrites, the crystallized deposits of black minerals that resemble plant growth (Figure 7.16). Other examples of pseudofossils are unusual or odd-shaped rocks that include various concretions and nodules. An expert can examine a potential fossil to see if there is the requisite internal structure of organic material such as bone or wood that would qualify the item as a fossil.
Dig Deeper: Trace Fossils
The Power of Poop
Coprolites found in Paisley Caves, Oregon, in the United States are shedding new light on some of the earliest occupants in North America. Human coprolites are distinguished from animal coprolites through the identification of fecal biomarkers using lipids, or fats, and bile acids (Shillito et al. 2020a). Paisley Caves have 16,000 years of anthropogenic, or human-caused, deposition, with some coprolites having been dated as old as 12.8kya (Blong et al. 2020). Over 285 radiocarbon dates have been recorded from the site (Shillito et al. 2020a), making Paisley Caves one of the most well-dated archaeological sites in the United States. Coprolite analysis can be summarized in three levels, macroscopic, microscopic, and molecular. This can also be understood as analyzing the morphology (macroscopic), contents (microscopic), and residues (molecular) (Shillito et al. 2020b). Each of these levels adds a different layer of information. Coprolite shape is informative through what can be seen macroscopically, such as ingestions of basketry or cordage, small gravels and grains, and general shape. The contents of coprolites may be of the most interest to scientists because certain plants and animals can signal past environments as well as food procurement methods. Coprolites from Paisley Caves have included small pebbles and obsidian chips from butchering game, grinding plants, and general food preparation as well as small bits of fire cracked rock likely from cooking in hearths (Blong 2020). Additionally, rodent bones in coprolites included crania and vertebrae, which suggests whole consumption (Taylor et al. 2020). Insect remains are present in the coprolites as well, such as ants, Jerusalem crickets, June beetles, and darkling beetles (Blong 2020). In all, the coprolites of Paisley Caves have provided an invaluable resource to anthropologists to study the past climate and lifeways of early humans in the Americas.
Coprolites can also signal past health, which is a study known as paleopathology. A study by Katelyn McDonough and colleagues (2022) focused on the identification of parasites in coprolites at Bonneville Estates Rockshelter in eastern Nevada and their link to the greater Great Basin during the Archaic, a period of time spanning 8,000–5,000 years ago. According to the study, parasites such as Acanthocephalans (thorny-headed worms) have been affecting the Great Basin for at least the last 10,000 years. Acanthocephalans are endoparasites, meaning parasites that live inside of their hosts. They are found worldwide and seem to have been concentrated in the Great Basin in the past. Bonneville Estates Rockshelter has been visited by humans for over 13,000 years, with parasite identification going back to nearly 7,000 years. The species identified at Bonneville Estates is Moniliformis clarki. This species parasitizes crickets and insects, a popular food source during the Archaic in the Great Basin. The parasite uses intermediate hosts to get to mammals and birds as definitive hosts. Crickets and beetles have been recorded as food materials in Paisley Caves as well. Insects have remained an important dietary staple for people of the Great Basin and are consumed raw, dried, brined, or ground into flour. Insects that remain uncooked or undercooked have a higher risk for transmission of parasites. Symptoms associated with Acanthocephalans infection are intense intestinal discomfort, anemia, and anorexia, leading to death. It is hypothesized that the consumption of basketry, cordage, and charcoal (which was also identified at Paisley Caves), sometimes associated with parasite-infected coprolites, may have been a method of treatment for the infection. Interestingly, present day infections from this parasite are rising after remaining quite rare, as detection of the parasite is occurring in insect farms.
Walking to the Past
In 1974, British anthropologist Mary Leakey discovered fossilized animal tracks at Laetoli (Figure 7.17), not far from the important paleoanthropological site at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. A few years later, a 27-meter trail of hominin footprints were discovered at the same site. These 70 footprints, now referred to as the Laetoli Footprints, were created when early humans walked in wet volcanic ash. Before the impressions were obscured, more volcanic ash and rain fell, sealing the footprints. These series of environmental events were truly extraordinary, but they fortunately resulted in some of the most famous and revealing trace fossils ever found. Dating of the footprints indicate that they were made 3.6 mya (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History 2018).
Just as forensic scientists can use footprints to identify the approximate build of a potential suspect in a crime, archaeologists have read the Laetoli Footprints for clues to these early humans. The footprints clearly indicate bipedal hominins who had similar feet to those of modern humans. Analysis of the gait through computer simulation revealed that the hominins at Laetoli walked similarly to the way we walk today (Crompton 2012). More recent analyses confirm the similarity to modern humans but also indicate a gait that involved more of a flexed limb than that of modern humans (Hatala et al. 2016; Raichlen and Gordon 2017). The relatively short stride implies that these hominins had short legs—unlike the longer legs of later early humans who migrated out of Africa (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History 2018). In the context of Olduvai Gorge, where fossils of Australopithecus afarensis have been located and dated to the same timeframe as the footprints, it is likely that these newly discovered impressions were left by these same hominins.
The footprints at Laetoli were made by a small group of as many as three Australopithecus afarensis, walking in close proximity, not unlike what we would see on a modern street or sidewalk. Two trails of footprints have been positively identified with the third set of prints appearing smaller and set in the tracks left by one of the larger individuals. While scientific methods have given us the ability to date the footprints and understand the body mechanics of the hominin, additional consideration of the footprints can lead to other implications. For instance, the close proximity of the individuals implies a close relationship existed between them, not unlike that of a family. Due to the size variation and the depth of impression, the footprints seem to have been made by two larger adults and possibly one child. Scientists theorize that the weight being carried by one of the larger individuals is a young child or a baby (Masao et al. 2016). Excavation continues at Laetoli today, resulting in the discovery of two more footprints in 2015, also believed to have been made by Au. afarensis (Masao et al. 2016).
But it is not just human evolution studies that can benefit from the analysis of fossil footprints. A recent discovery of fossilized footprints has rewritten what we know about the peopling of the Americas. It was originally thought that humans had been in the Americas for at least the last 15,000 years by crossing through the ice-free corridor (IFC) between the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets in present-day Alaska and Canada. However, fossil footprints from the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico (see Figure 7.18) discovered in 2021 have challenged this theory. The footprints, dated between 22,860 (∓320) and 21,130 (∓250) years ago (nps.gov) based on Ruppia cirrhosa grass seeds located above and below the footprints, have shown humans have been in the Americas for much longer than previously thought. These footprints represent an adolescent individual and toddler walking through the lakebed at White Sands (see Figure 7.19), New Mexico, alongside both giant ground sloths and mammoths (Barras 2022; Wade 2021). Also present in the lakebed are footprints of camels and dire wolves (nps.gov 2022; Wade 2021).
The IFC model was upheld by a group of theorists known as “Clovis First,” who believed the migration of people into the Americas was recent and was represented archaeologically through the Clovis projectile point toolkit. Subsequent discoveries at sites such as Cactus Hill on the east coast of the United States and Monte Verde, Chile, have demonstrated that this model wouldn’t have worked. Because these sites are as old as 20,000 years and 18,500 years respectively, the IFC would have been frozen over and impassable (Gruhn 2020). Other models have been adopted to account for this, such as the coastal migration model down the west coast of North America. The more-likely migration scenario seems to be neither of these as more discoveries or antiquity continue to emerge. People may instead have migrated into the Americas before the last glacial maximum began, around 25,500–19,000 years ago. According to Indigenous knowledge, they have always been here. With the discovery of the White Sands footprints, it is known that humans have been in the Americas for at least 20,000 years.
This discovery also reveals the importance of recognizing knowledge beyond that which is produced by the European scientific tradition. Rather than framing science in a way that runs counter to Indigenous knowledge, it can be thought that science is catching up with it. For instance, the Acoma Pueblo people have the word for camel in their vocabulary. This was dismissed by scientists who assumed the word was for describing camels that were introduced to the United States in the past 100 years. However, the discovery of the White Sands footprints also included the footprints of Pleistocene camels in the same strata. Therefore, the fact that the Acoma Pueblo people have had a word for camel likely refers the Pleistocene-age megafauna camel, Camelops hesternus, rather than Camelus dromedarius or Camelus bactrianus, two present-day camel species (which are actually descendants of Camelops hesternus). Therefore, the existence of the Acoma Pueblo word for camel is not like an anomaly but rather a testament to the fact that Acoma Pueblo ancestors walked beside C. hesternus on this continent 20,000 years ago. These footprints challenge the “ice-free corridor” expansion model, as the bridge connecting present-day Alaska and Russia into Canada would have been covered in an impenetrable ice sheet at this time. The discovery of these footprints urges scientists to reconsider further investigations at well-known Terminal Pleistocene/Early Holocene dry lake beds in the Southwestern and Mojave deserts—and to include Indigenous knowledge in their work rather than ignore it.
Special Topic: Necropolitics
What are necropolitics? Necropolitics is an application of critical theory that describes how “governments assign differential value to human life” and similarly how someone is treated after they die (Verghese 2021). How is someone’s death political?
Consider the La Brea Woman example from the section on asphalt above. The La Brea Woman’s discovery was controversial, not because she is the only person to be found in the tar pits or because of her age but also because of necropolitics. The La Brea Woman was collected in 1914 and her body was housed on display at the George C. Page Museum in Los Angeles against the wishes of the Chumash and the Tongva, two tribes whose ancestral lands include Los Angeles. The museum decided to display a skull cast instead to meet the request of the tribes which included a separate postcranial skeleton from a different individual. The updated display itself was wrought with other ethical issues, as a cast of her skull was “attached to the ancient remains of a Pakistani female that was dyed dark bronze, the femurs shortened to approximate the stature of native people” (Cooper 2010). In both cases, neither the individuals or their descendent communities consented to the display or grotesque modification of human remains. According to an interview conducted by LA Weekly (Cooper 2010) with Cindi Alvitre, former chair of the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribal Council, the display of Indigenous human remains is akin to voyeurism. She states “It’s disheartening to me because it’s very inappropriate to display any human remains. The things we do to fill the imagination of visitors. It violates human rights.” It is important to listen to the wishes of Indigenous people and center their values when conducting work with their ancestors. A good source for considering places to look for archaeological research ethics before conducting fieldwork (and ideally during your research design) is the Society for American Archaeology’s ethics principle list, as well as following the Indigenous Archaeology Collective.
Indigenous remains are now protected in the United States due to legislation such as Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). You can read more about this in Chapter 15: Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology. Before the passing of NAGPRA, tribes had little agency over how the bodies of their ancestors were treated by anthropologists and museums, including decisions about sampling and destructive tests. Now when archaeological field work is conducted on federal land, tribes must be consulted before work begins. This consultation process often includes what to do if human remains are encountered. Indigenous tribes are multifaceted and multivocal; each has its own rules about how to handle the remains of their ancestors. In some cases, all work on the project must be halted after the discovery of human remains. Other tribes allow for work to continue if the remains are moved and reburied. Some tribes are open to radiometric dating if it aligns with their beliefs in the afterlife. Each tribe is different, and each tribe deserves to have its wishes respected.