The Evolution of Paleontology

Shell Fossils Preserved in Mud
Shell fossils

Paleontology as a science has only formally been around since the 1700s. Philosophers and scientists have been noticing signs for centuries, though, that suggest to them evolution or climate change. For example, the Greek thinker Xenophanes noticed that there were shells and shell fossils on areas of land far away from the ocean, and he concluded that there had once been water there until the sea receded to where it was during his lifetime.


Trace Fossils Preserved in Rock
Trace fossils

During the Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci did important work with understanding trace fossils, and described their connection to fossil remains. Trace fossils can be dinosaur footprints, tail drag marks, or animal burrows for example.  All evidence of the presence of life in a certain area.   Da Vinci also described several fossils. The study of paleontology during the Age of Reason was important to the shift in thought that came about during that time, which was that people began to understand that they weren’t the center of the Universe, literally and figuratively, and that science and reason could explain or be more important that religious explanations.


At the beginning of the 1800s, museums and scientific societies promoted the growth of paleontology. The actual word was first written by Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blanville, the editor of a scientific journal. At this point, members of the scientific community were still trying to understand that there have been extinctions and that the Earth wasn’t always laid out as it is now. It wasn’t until later, and definitely after Darwin’s Origin of Species, that they turned their attention to the patterns in the history of life and evolutionary history. During this time, human evolution also began to be explored, something that was controversial and even dangerous to consider.


In the second half of the 20th century, land in America and China had been set aside for fossil excavation. Fossils found at these sites in the past few decades have been crucial in understanding big events in history and hundreds of new species which bridge gaps in our understanding of evolutionary history of birds, fish, and others.


Active Paleontology SiteFrom the 19th century, more than one branch of science came together to understand the history of life. Mendel’s pioneering work with genetics provided a how to those studying evolution. They now understood that evolution happened through adaptation through mutation in DNA. New technology, such as radiometric or carbon dating has helped accurately plot out historical events and show a sequence not only in the evolution of one species but in how all species in an area coexisted and affected one another.


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1 thought on “The Evolution of Paleontology”

  1. What a cool read this topic was for me on this Fossil Friday! I so often think about what paleontology teaches us about the evolution of life on our planet, that I fail to consider that paleontology has experienced its own evolution too.
    With that in mind, I’d be interested in knowing if there have ever been any deliberate paleontologic hoaxes, or innocent misinterpretations of fossil findings, that have caused any significant setbacks in the progress of paleontology or sparked a whole new understanding once the hoax was revealed or new evidence found to refute the prior misinterpretation of findings?

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