ArchaeoCafé Podcast – Episode 2-03 – A little bird told me: An interview with Kari Prassack

hosted by Otis Crandell and Tommy Ng

In this episode, we talk with Kari Prassack about using bird remains to reconstruct past environments and landscapes, about the overlap between archaeology and palaeontology, and about her work in engaging the public and generating interest in research and science.

Listen to this episode online:



Some useful terminology and links

Also “archaeozoology” or among archaeologists “faunal analysis”. The study of non-human animals in archaeological contexts. This may involve the study of the remains of animals found at archaeological sites, the effect of animals on the environment, or the relationships between humans and other animals. This field of research often combines the studies of archaeology and zoology.

A technique that uses layers of tephra (volcanic ash from a single eruption) as chronological markers within layers of soil. The premise of the technique is that each volcanic event produces ash with a unique chemical “fingerprint” that allows the deposit to be identified across the area affected by fallout. Once the volcanic event has been independently dated, the tephra horizon will act as time marker anywhere that it is encountered. Essentially, layers beneath the ash will be older than the eruption, and layers above will be younger. If tephra layers can be identified both above and below a layer of interest then the age of the contents of that layer (for example, artefacts or fossils) must be between the ages of the two tephra layers.

Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument
A national park near Hagerman, Idaho, U.S.A. It is internationally significant for its paleontological resources. It includes the world’s richest fossil deposits, in quality, quantity, and diversity, from the late Pliocene epoch. Many of its fossils represent the last vestiges of species that existed before the last Ice Age, the Pleistocene, and the earliest ‘modern’ flora and fauna. Its paleontological resources are contained in a continuous, undisturbed stratigraphic record spanning at least 500,000 years. The fossils deposited here appear to represent an entire paleontological ecosystem with a variety of habitats such as wetland, riparian, and grassland savanna. While best known for its fossil horses, Hagerman Fossil Beds is also one of North America’s most important sites for Pliocene birds.

Olduvai Gorge
Located in Tanzania, in the Great Rift Valley. It is one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world. The site is significant in showing the increasing developmental and social complexities in the earliest humans, or hominins, largely revealed in the production and use of stone tools.
Homo habilis, probably the first early human species, occupied Olduvai Gorge approximately 1.9 million years ago, followed by Homo erectus, 1.2 million years ago.

Olduvai Geochronology and Archaeology Project (OGAP)
This project brings together an international team of archaeologists and geologists, whose main goal is to study the mechanisms that led to the origins of the Acheulean in Olduvai Gorge.


Selected publications

The paleoecology of Pleistocene birds from Middle Bed II, at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, and the environmental context of the Oldowan-Acheulean transition
by Kari Prassack, Michael Pante, Jackson Njau, Ignacio de la Torre
Journal of Human Evolution, 2018, vol. 120, p. 32-47

Vultures Moving in: Fossil Birds Suggest a More Open and Heterogeneous Landscape During the Oldowan-Acheulean Transition
by Kari Prassack, Michael Pante, Jackson Njau, L.M. McHenry, Ignacio de la Torre
presented at the Paleoanthropology Society Meetings in Austin, TX (2018)

Landscape distribution and ecology of Plio-Pleistocene avifaunal communities from Lowermost Bed II, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania
by Kari Prassack
Journal of Human Evolution, 2014, vol. 70, p. 1-15

The effect of weathering on bird bone survivorship in modern and fossil saline-alkaline lake environments
by Kari Prassack
Paleobiology, 2011, vol. 37(4), p. 633-654

From the Ashes: how volcanologists can help paleontologists reconstruct the ancient past at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument
by Emily Thorpe and Kari Prassack
Park Paleontology News, 2021, vol. 13(1)


About Kari Prassack

Dr. Prassack is a vertebrate paleoecologist and zooarchaeologist with a current taxonomic focus on Pliocene-Recent carnivorans and birds. Her research incorporates ecological method and theory, controlled and naturalistic neotaphonomic observations, and paleobiogeographical data to address the ecology of extinct taxa and changes in terrestrial vertebrate paleocommunities across time and space. She currently works at the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument where she is the lead paleontologist. She is also the project leader of the Hagerman Paleontology, Environments and Tephrochronology (PET) Project, a co-principal investigator of the Předmostí Canid Project, and a research affiliate of the Olduvai Geochronology and Archaeology Project.





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