Lipid biomarkers have been extensively applied for tracing organisms and evolutionary processes through Earth's history. They have become especially important for the reconstruction of early life on Earth and, potentially, for the detection of life in the extraterrestrial realm. However, it is not always clear how exactly biomarkers reflect a paleoecosystem as their preservation may be influenced by increasing temperatures (T) and pressures (P) during burial. While a number of biomarker indices reflecting thermal maturity have been established, it is often less well constrained to which extent biomarker ratios used for paleoreconstruction are compromised by T and P processes. In this study we conducted hydrous pyrolysis of Green River Shale (GRS) kerogen in gold capsules for 2–2400 h at 300°C to assess the maturation behaviour of several compounds used as life tracers and for the reconstruction of paleoenvironments (n-alkanes, pristane, phytane, gammacerane, steranes, hopanes and cheilanthanes). Lignite samples were maturated in parallel with the GRS kerogen to obtain exact vitrinite reflectance data at every sampling point. Our experiment confirms the applicability of biomarker-based indices and ratios as maturity indicators (e.g. total cheilanthanes/hopanes ratio; sterane and hopane isomerization indices). However, several biomarker ratios that are commonly used for paleoreconstructions (e.g. pristane/phytane, pristane/n-C17, phytane/n-C18 and total steranes/hopanes) were considerably affected by differences in the thermal degradation behaviour of the respective compounds. Short-term experiments (48 h) performed at 400°C also revealed that biomarkers >C15 (especially steranes and hopanes) and ‘biological’ chain length preferences for n-alkanes are vanished at a vitrinite reflectance between 1.38 and 1.83% RO. Our data highlight that ‘thermal taphonomy’ effects have to be carefully considered in the interpretation of biomarkers in ancient rocks and, potentially, extraterrestrial materials.