Universiteit Leiden

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Forensics lectures

Thursday 22 November 2018
Niels Bohrweg 1
2333 CA Leiden

Taphonomy and the Terroir

Prof Shari Forbes

Taphonomy is the study of the processes that impact an organism from the time of death to the time of recovery. Research in the field of forensic taphonomy aims to better understand the physical, chemical, and biological processes of soft and hard tissue decomposition. Decomposition is inherently impacted by the surrounding environment including, the climate, geology and ecology. Until recently, the only facilities that conducted human decomposition research were based in the USA, however their data could not be extrapolated to distinctly different environments.

The Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) opened in 2016 as a national research and training centre that has enhanced the way in which death investigations are conducted in Australia. This presentation will highlight the research conducted at AFTER encompassing a broad range of disciplines including forensic chemistry, molecular biology, microbiology, anthropology, odontology, archaeology, pathology and entomology.

Homo Naledi and the Evolution of Hominin Mortuary Practices

Dr Patrick Randolph-Quinney

The Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave system (Cradle of Humankind, South Africa) has yielded more than 1500 fossil specimens dated to between 226 and 335 Kya which have been attributed to the taxon Homo naledi. This represents a critical timeframe in the evolution of African hominins, with Homo naledi (at least from the Dinaledi Chamber) being contemporaneous with the emergence of Homo sapiens elsewhere in Africa. At Rising Star, multi-disciplinary lines of evidence (from structural geology, sedimentology, and palaeo- and forensic taphonomy) exclude conventional depositional models seen in other caves in the Cradle of Humankind, such as carnivore predation, scavenging, natural death trap, water transport, mudflow, and mass fatality. We have proposed that the remains of Homo naledi may have been deliberately introduced into the chamber by conspecifics through the practice of funerary caching.

This talk discusses the evolution of primary forms of mortuary practice – structured abandonment, funerary caching, and formal burial – highlighting the evolutionary, ethological and cultural contexts in which such mortuary behaviours may have developed. In doing so, I draw on comparative anthropology and primatology to investigate the relationships between non-human primate reactions to death, and the origins of complex ritualised mortuary behaviours in hominins. I consider the evidence from the Dinaledi Chamber in relation to these behaviours and examine the implications for the African archaeological record of the possible cultural transmission of ritualised behaviour in the context of archaic and modern human evolution. 

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