Taphonomy is central to many attempts to address social questions from archaeological animal remains, especially where those questions relate to practices of consumption and deposition. Without a clear analytical framework for this purpose, however, results can verge on the anecdotal. Following a review of the structure of taphonomy, this paper presents just such a framework designed to isolate archaeologically relevant patterns of behaviour through a comprehensive, quantitative analysis of numerous taphonomic variables. The typical formation processes shaping zooarchaeological assemblages are grouped into five broad stages and considered in reverse chronological order, allowing the analyst to work backwards towards the ‘death assemblage’ while identifying evidence of cultural practices. Particular attention is paid to differences between taxa, context types, phases, etc., that cannot be explained in mechanistic terms. This process is illustrated with selected data from a wider study of the Vinča (late Neolithic) site of Gomolava, Serbia, tracing the identification of one particular set of depositional practices. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.