History of Palaeontology


Although shells in prehistoric deposits were accepted as preserved remnants of ancient organisms by Greek philosophers, this fundamental idea was essentially lost until the seventeenth century, and the science of palaeontology was not truly established until the nineteenth century. The progression of life demonstrated in the fossil record led to many advances in geology, most notably in biostratigraphy and delineation of the geological column. For the public, giant Mesozoic saurians, fossil humans and Ice Age mammals have been a fascination since the nineteenth century. Conservitat Lagerstätte such as the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale have produced diverse and bizarre primitive invertebrates that now rival dinosaurs, Neanderthal man and mammoths in the popular imagination. But it is the unique contribution that palaeontology makes to the understanding of biological evolution by natural selection in time and space that underlines its importance to the modern life sciences.

Key Concepts:

  • Fossils have been recognised as curiosities of nature since at least the Palaeolithic.

  • William Smith is father of modern biostratigraphy.

  • Charles Darwin was a leading geologist of the mid‐nineteenth century.

  • Fossils are the principal tools for the correlation of rock successions, both locally and internationally.

  • Palaeontology has provided independent data for testing continental displacement.

  • Palaeontological data provided evidence for salutatory evolution (punctuated equilibrium) that would not otherwise be apparent.

  • Only one mass extinction, at the Cretaceous‐Paleogene boundary, has provided consistent and reproducible hard evidence for an extraterrestrial driving mechanism.

  • Conservitat Lagerstätte (‘fossil mother lodes’) are rare deposits in which fossils are exceptionally preserved, for example, ‘soft tissues’ are mineralised and complex skeletons articulated.

Keywords: fossils; geology; evolution; extinction; stratigraphy

Figure 1.

Johann Scheucher's Homo diluvi testis et theoscopos from Oeningen (now Wangen), on the German side of the Rhine. This specimen is on display at the Teylers Museum, Haarlem, the Netherlands. It is actually a Miocene salamander, Andrias scheuchzeri (Holl). Image by the author.

Figure 2.

Mid‐nineteenth century reconstructions of Iguanadon, still on display in the park at Crystal Palace, south London, England. Image by the author.



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Further Reading

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Donovan, Stephen K(Oct 2014) History of Palaeontology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003097.pub2]