The acid test: An experimental microarchaeological study of guano-driven diagenesis in tropical cave sediments

Publication Name

Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports


Caves in tropical regions form a key resource for those reconstructing human evolution and dispersals. However, the complex sedimentary records they contain remain under-interpreted because of the poorly constrained effects of humid tropical climates upon archaeological site formation processes. Guano-driven phosphatic diagenesis impacts archaeological preservation in caves, but atypical features observed in guano layers in prominent Southeast Asian archaeological sites suggested that hot and humid conditions had promoted the formation of distinctive sedimentary environments with unknown effects on assemblage taphonomy. Few reference data exist that are relevant to geomorphic processes in tropical caves and this laboratory-based modern analogue study was designed to conclusively relate analytical observations to sedimentary palaeoenvironments and explore their effects on assemblage taphonomy. Stratigraphic models were kept under simulated tropical conditions, each containing an identical range of faunal remains, organic materials and mineralss, which was buried in wet bat guano. These were excavated, one per month over 24 months, while nine further stratigraphic models were used to control for environmental variables. Sedimentary environments were investigated using sedimentological characterisations of excavated sediments, while post-depositional alterations to buried materials were investigated through optical and scanning electron microscopic analysis of thin-section samples combined with chemical characterisations of excavated samples through Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). Experimental conditions prevented the sediment acidification that is typically associated with guano-driven diagenesis, but buried materials were severely, and distinctively, diagenetically altered. Organic decomposition in guano, bamboo and charcoal was associated with the activities of sulphate-reducing bacteria, but diagenetic alterations affecting charcoal remain poorly resolved due to variation in the experimental assemblage. Bone was discoloured and affected by dissolution, recrystallisation and alteration to secondary minerals, including gypsum, while carbonates reprecipitated as calcium phosphates and non-stochiometric mineral species. Diagenesis of clay minerals was observed, but related diagenetic trajectories remain poorly resolved. These alterations provide micromorphological and mineralogical indicators of sedimentary palaeoenvironments in the earliest stages of burial and this experiment provides a framework within which to understand the taphonomy of archaeological materials in tropical caves.

Open Access Status

This publication may be available as open access



Article Number


Funding Sponsor

NSW Department of Primary Industries



Link to publisher version (DOI)