We explain what paleontology is, what are its branches, history and object of study. In addition, examples of fossil findings.
What is paleontology?
Paleontology is the science that studies the geological past of life on our planet . For this, it uses the fossil record found under the earth’s surface.
It is a kind of retrospective biology , interested in understanding the microbiological, animal, plant, etc. past of the world, based on the evidence that, petrified due to different physical-chemical mechanisms, survive the passage of time .
Paleontology is a discipline that encompasses diverse knowledge from geology and biology . It can even be considered the result of the crossing of these two sciences.
His research methods include the analytical description of the fossils found, their comparative analysis , and even the formulation of statistical data in this regard. Thus it is possible to obtain conclusions about the biological past of the planet, which at the same time are useful for thinking about our present, and the future.
Paleontology covers three branches or subdivisions, which are:
- Paleobiology . He is dedicated to studying the organisms of the past and reconstructing their living conditions. In turn, it includes paleobotany (study of prehistoric trees), paleozoology (study of prehistoric animals), micropaleontology (study of prehistoric microorganisms ), paleoecology (study of prehistoric ecosystems ), etc.
- Taphonomy . For its part, it deals with the fossilization and petrification processes that result in fossils. This is possible in turn to focus on two distinct branches: biostratinomy, centered on the origin of fossils and their burial in the lithosphere ; and fosildiagenesis, focused instead on those processes that take place underground, for millennia, and that result in fossilization.
- Biochronology . This branch is dedicated to determining and comparing the chronological age of the fossil samples, so that they can be sorted by epochs. There are different dating mechanisms that can be used for this, which are also the object of study of this discipline.
History of paleontology
Paleontology goes back, albeit informally, to the first fossil finds that took place around the 6th century BC. C. They were interpreted according to the Greek philosophy of the time: Pythagoras’ followers interpreted them as remains of an archaic and unknown life.
On the contrary, the followers of Plato considered them a kind of “games of nature “, imperfect imitations of life, as if God had been practicing before creating living beings .
The existence of fossils was, for more than 1500 years, a hot topic of debate in the West. The Christian religion defended for centuries the idea that life had been created as the Bible relates, without much time had elapsed between the creation of the world and the appearance of humanity.
Therefore, for the Church the fossils found could not be so old as to be creatures totally unknown to man .
During the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century paleontology had its rebirth . The first formally paleobiological studies were produced, in the hands of naturalists such as Colonna, Nicolaus Steno, Robert Hooke and many others.
Some of their findings were interpreted as evidence of the Biblical Universal Flood, although much later it became clear that they were prehistoric animals, such as dinosaurs.
From then until the eighteenth century there were large systematic studies of the fossil record, trying to find the truth that they hid from the world’s past. This objective was only possible with the emergence of modern sciences and especially the studies of Lamarck (19th century) and Darwin , who formulated the theory on the origin of species in 1858.
Only from then on paleontology became an independent science , capable of determining the true age of the planet and unraveling the life forms that governed it during the millennia prior to our arrival.
Object of study of paleontology
The purpose of paleontology is easy to understand if we look at the etymology of its name, composed of three distinct Greek voices: palaces , “ancient”; ontós , “being” or “what is”, and logos , “knowledge” or “reason”.
So paleontology has the object of study of ancient beings, that is, the life forms that existed on the planet long before the beginning of history . Dinosaurs, large mammals , or the first forms of bacterial life are just a few examples. His study is based on samples, evidence and traces: what we call “the fossil record.”
This knowledge is of the utmost importance to understand where humanity comes from and how life operates. It throws light on the conditions that produced life in the first place, or those that fueled its evolution or even those that led to massive and tragic extinctions.
Paleontology and archeology
Although these two sciences are interested in the remote past , and they do so from the evidence preserved over time, their specific objects of study are radically different.
While paleontology focuses on the life that existed before and during the emergence of humanity, archeology deals with humanity’s past : ancient cultures , evidence of its first forms of organization, etc.
Examples of fossil findings
Some recognized findings of the fossil record are the following:
- Finding the Berlin specimen of the Archeopteryx in 1880 , the first dinosaur fossil found in which there is evidence of its plumage. This revolutionized the idea of these creatures until then and allowed their recognized link with modern birds, their descendants.
- The oldest human fossil was found in 2018 , in the Misliya cave, Israel, and is made up of a jaw fragment with most of its teeth intact. The finding dates from 170,000 to 200,000 years ago.
- The fossilized footprints of Clayton Lake Park , in New Mexico, United States. There was found a set of fossil footprints, which includes huge and small dinosaur footprints.
- The finding of Argentinosaurus huincuilensis in Argentine Patagonia , which occurred in Neuquén, near the Andes mountain range in 1989. This dinosaur is one of the few known that inhabited South America during the Cretaceous, and was one of the animals Earth’s most enormous of which there is news so far.