History of Fossils from Prehistoric to Modern Times

While it may seem that our study and knowledge of fossils is fairly recent, fossils themselves are ancient and have been around throughout all of human history? What did ancient societies think about fossils, and how have our interactions with them changed? That’s the question we’re setting out to answer today at Light Future Art.

Dinosuar Fossil PhotoThere is a lot of evidence of prehistoric people using fossils as weapons, specifically by carving them into knives. Classical societies like ancient Egypt and Greece mythologized the fossils that they found, either creating stories of how they belonged to mythical creatures like griffins or collecting them in honor of the gods. In North America, some Native American tribes saw the fossils of pterosaurs as those of the Thunderbird. In Rome, the fossils of large extinct mollusks were called the “horns of Ammon (a god)”, and the modern name ammonite still bears tribute to this legacy. In ancient China, the fossils of human ancestors were collected as dragon bones or eaten medicinally. Still at other times, fossils created myths, such as the skulls of prehistoric elephants, having a large opening in the front for their trunks, spawning the story of the Cyclops.


Shark Tooth FossilWith the Renaissance came an interest in scientific explanations and study, and it was Leonardo da Vinci who theorized that fossils were the remains of dead animals and perhaps the remains of those who died in the Biblical flood. Other thinkers of the time took it one step further towards our modern understanding and compared the appearance of fossils with the skeleton of modern animals. Nicholas Steno saw fossilized sharks’ teeth and came to the conclusion that they must belong to some extinct shark.

Engineer William Smith observed that different fossils were found in different layers of Earth, and began to theorize that the specimens have a timeline to them. He called his theory “faunal succession”. He was often cited by Darwin as proof of evolution.

And then we come to the modern age. Mary Anning’s discovery of a complete dinosaur skeleton in the 1800s renewed public and academic interest in paleontology. Not long after, Darwin published “The Origin of Species”. Smith’s timeline theory has of course been proven and our methods of filling in that timeline have become more advanced and precise.

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