A review of fossil burial laws and preservation studies in Southeast Asian caves

Lay summary authored by Holly Smith. Read the full paper here: http://doi.org/10.5334/oq.75

Caves are critical sites for understanding Quaternary fossil remains around the world. A large percentage of fossil sites from this time period are from caves. It is therefore critical to study how burial, decay and preservation processes impact the cave fossil record. These studies are important to understand how well caves preserve the signals of past diversity and ecology. Southeast Asia has a rich and interesting fossil history, however, the mechanisms of long-term fossil preservation in this region are poorly understood. This is in part due to dating complexities and poor preservation potential in tropical environments. The literature on Southeast Asian caves is summarised in order to critically analyse the scientific methods used over time. We address the issues inherent in the conventional methods used in Southeast Asian cave studies due to the associated difficulties of discerning the mechanisms of cave formation, depositional history and fossil accumulation.


Dr Gerrell Drawhorn of California State University, USA and Dr Yan Rizal of Institut Teknologi Bandung, Indonesia excavate Pleistocene fossil remains from a breccia deposit in Lida Ajer cave, Sumatra. Credit: Holly Smith, with permissions.

It is considered that calcareous cave deposits called breccia that accumulate in limestone caves may hold the key to resolving this issue. Breccia are the primary source of data in the literature as they occur frequently and are often fossiliferous. A key knowledge gap lies in the absence of contextual data stored in the sediment of these deposits. The internal structure of breccia is typically disregarded or destroyed during excavation. It is considered that there are significant opportunities for future research in the use of digital techniques to three-dimensionally reconstruct the internal material properties of fossiliferous breccia.


PhD candidate Holly Smith of Griffith University, Australia excavates a breccia block sample from Lida Ajer cave, Sumatra. Credit: Holly Smith, with permissions.

There is excellent breccia potential for establishing the dominant factors responsible for accumulation and preservation of cave vertebrate remains. Our analysis highlights that breccia deposits have a great deal of evidence in store for anthropological and palaeontological studies in Southeast Asian caves in the future.

Full paper: Smith, H.E., Morley, M.W. and Louys, J., 2020. Taphonomic Analyses of Cave Breccia in Southeast Asia: A Review and Future Directions. Open Quaternary, 6(1), p.13. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/oq.75

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