Predicting the Location of Hominin Sites in Africa and Asia

Matthew Collins, Kathryn Holmes, Katherine Robson Brown, 2005

Data copyright © Katherine Robson Brown unless otherwise stated

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Matthew Collins, Kathryn Holmes, Katherine Robson Brown (2005) Predicting the Location of Hominin Sites in Africa and Asia [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor]

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Early human archaeological and fossil sites are known in Africa from about 6 million years ago, and in Asia from about 1.8 million years ago. The distribution of these sites in time and space is very patchy, and while this situation may in part be the result of the practical difficulties of working in these regions, it is also likely that given the variables of geomorphology, climate and vegetation, sites in which hominin, faunal, archaeological or environmental information is preserved may not be distributed uniformly across the landscape. The overall aim of this project, therefore, was to formulate a method of predicting where well-preserved palaeolithic archaeological sites might be located. Such a tool would be of enormous value to the disciplines of palaeolithic archaeology and palaeoanthropology in assessing the completeness of the existing fossil record, facilitating appropriate fieldwork strategies, and contributing to informed heritage management policy.

In order to assess the distribution of Palaeolithic sites and hominin remains, an understanding of the factors that may affect the preservation of archaeological material in the fossil record was required. One of the main factors that is thought to affect seriously the global distribution of fossil remains is taphonomy, but it would seem that taphonomic processes may themselves be overprinted by collagen degradation as the tensile strength of bone diminishes exponentially with the loss of nitrogen, a proxy for the main bone protein, collagen (Turner-Walker & Parry, 1995).

Collins et al. (1995) attempted to model the impact of collagen loss on tensile strength and were able to derive a relationship similar to that reported for the deterioration of collagen suture (Okada, Hayashi & Ikada, 1992). Their model suggests that the accumulation of relatively small amounts of damage will dramatically affect the ability of bone to resist tensile stress. The rate of collagen loss is highly temperature sensitive and the rate increases exponentially. It is, therefore, not unreasonable to surmise that temperature will have a marked impact on collagen loss. If collagen loss materially influences the physical properties of the bone, then temperature may have a dominant role to play in bone taphonomy. Hence, it would be expected that fossil faunal remains would be distributed in areas of low collagen loss, i.e. low temperature. Conversely, lithics will not be subject to a temperature bias in their preservation. We tested this hypothesis through the use of archaeological material.

This dataset has a large coverage in time and space. A database of archaeological and palaeontological sites from Africa and Asia dating to between 6 million and 10,000 years ago was collected. Only sites for which latitude/longitude and information on assemblage type could be obtained were included.

Further details of this project can be found in the following article:

Holmes, K. M., Robson Brown, K. A., Oates, W. P. & Collins, M. J. (2005). 'Assessing the distribution of African Palaeolithic sites: a predictive model of collagen degradation' Journal of Archaeological Science 32 (2): 157 - 166.

This project was funded by an AHRB Innovation Awards Scheme Grant. Ref: B/IA/AN 8847/APN 13794.