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A History of Paleontology

Updated: Jul 26, 2022

I don't believe a paleontology blog would be complete without touching on my home country. Sure, many modern and 'exciting' finds have come from many other places around the world, but few other countries have as long and rich history as Britain does when it comes to the science of palaeontology and geology as a whole. For example, roughly 70% of what we know about the Earth's processes came from Scotland alone!

But this isn't all about Britain, here in this post we'll be looking at who created paleontology, when scientists first began studying fossils and how the discovery of the first ever dinosaur skyrocketed the science into popularity!

So, the country of origin of the science of geology (and by extension paleontology) depends on how far back you want to go back. The first geological observations were made by the ancient Greeks, as they hypothesised very (very) gradual changes of the Earth, then the ancient romans were actually the first to correctly identify amber as fossilised tree resin. Other fossils have been found throughout history, but were mostly misidentified as mythical creatures, which you can read more about here.

Modern geology truly began during the 17th century when it started to gradually become its own science. Geology initially started when Christians wanted to use scientific evidence for the great flood, since science was becoming more and more popular with the onset of the enlightenment period. This led to the formal naming of fossils, planting the seeds for the official branch of paleontology. A pioneer of geology in this time, who was one the few who were shaking up the accepted religious theories about the origins of the Earth, was Nicolas Steno.

Painting of Nicolas Steno.
Nicolas Steno (1638-1686) Image credit:

Steno was a Danish bishop, anatomist and geologist, who not only came up with the four principles of stratigraphy (the layering of rocks), but also noted that shark's teeth looked exactly like the small pointed rocks that are found within other rocks and questioned how that was possible.

Fast forwarding an approximate century, a French man named Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), a naturalist and zoologist, had expanded on this even more. So much so, in fact, that Geores Cuvier is cited as the father of paleontology. He was the first to prove the existence of extinction events, as well as the first person to correctly identify and name the first pterosaur and the first mosasaur. From this, he theorised that there had once been a time when reptiles were the dominant fauna of the planet as opposed to mammals. He was also responsible for expanding upon linnean classification, organising animals into various taxa, most of which still hold true today. Controversially though, he did not believe in the idea of evolution, still holding onto creationist beliefs and, worse still, heavily influenced scientific racism, proposing that (what he termed) Caucasians, Mongolians and Ethiopians were the three separate taxa of the human species.

It wasn't until 1822 that the term 'paleontology' (though it was spelt the traditional English way of 'palaeontology') was first used. The term 'paleontology' described (and still does) the study of ancient life through fossils. Following the heavy use of fossils to help William 'strata' Smith in creating the very first geological map of Britain and establishing the law of faunal succession, it was decided that the study of fossils should be taken more seriously. From here, there was an exponential increase in knowledge about the Earth's history as a whole. The modern geological time scale was created from this, being dictated by fossil evidence and segmented by extinction events.

It was here that Britain really came into its own when shaping the science as it is today. Pioneers of paleontology include the great Mary Anning (1799-1847), whose discoveries in her lifetime included the very first ichthyosaur (which she discovered when she was just 12!), the first plesiosaur, the first pterosaur outside of Germany and she correctly identified the first coprolite (what she termed 'bezoar stones'). Unfortunately, most of the credit she attained for her intrepid contributions was given posthumously. Another was William Conybeare, who was responsible for formally describing most of the marine reptiles found by Anning.

We also have William Buckland (1784-1856). It was this man who, discovered and described an animal he named 'Megalosaurus', the very first dinosaur. Buckland's depiction of the animal was quite different from what we know today, being shown in the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. He was also credited as being a leading mind in the interpretation of fossilised faeces, which he termed 'coprolites'. As mentioned above, however, Buckland was also another scientist who took some formal credit for Anning's findings, an example being that he couldn't have published any work on coprolites without her input.

Image of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs.
Iguanodon as it was originally portrayed at Crystal Palace. Image credit:

Anning also served as a great inspiration for Gideon Mantell (1790-1852), who published many works on both terrestrial and marine reptiles as well as discovering and naming 4 of the 5 known genera of dinosaur at the time (including Iguanodon). By trade, Mantell was actually a medical doctor but used his vast knowledge of comparative anatomy to make great contributions to the knowledge of the Mesozoic, especially the Cretaceous of Southern England.

Then we come to the very controversial figure of Richard Owen (1804-1892). It was this man first coined the term 'dinosaur', creating their own group within reptilia. His work on dinosaurs was vast from there on, but he was also credited as one of the greatest minds in palaeontology overall, having published various works on invertebrates, fish, reptiles, mammals and birds as well as coming up with the famous archetype of a vertebrate. It is also thanks to this man that London has its own museum of natural history (possibly my favourite place in the world). It was even the Iguanodon statue from Crystal Palace that Owen, along with Buckland, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (the sculptor who created them) and a few colleagues actually took the top off from and had a New Year's eve party inside to celebrate! However, his controversy has certainly tarnished his renown as a scientist. He was described by many as malicious, arrogant, dishonest and jealous. You can't blame them either, as he seemed to enjoy an argument for the sake of it, coming to blows with his former friend Charles Darwin and disagreeing heavily with his theories of evolution. He was also a known plagiariser, taking credit for discoveries such as the Iguanodon (discovered by the previously mentioned Mantell). He even took advantage of Mantell suffering a crippling accident to rename all of Mantell's discoveries and crediting himself for them before having a heavy influence over Mantell's obituary which described him as mediocre. Soon people wised up to his ways though and his reputation was left in ruins by the time he retired.

Image of Richard Owen standing next to the Moa bird.
Richard Owen standing next to the great Moa bird. Image credit:

And of course, we simply cannot go without mentioning one of the greatest pioneers of naturalism of all: Charles Darwin. It goes without being said that palaeontology played a huge role in his theory of evolution with specimens such as archaeopteryx serving as his poster child. His work in evolution and biology meant that scientists looked upon fossils with fresh eyes, creating an exponential increase in knowledge.

An image of an archaeopteryx fossil.
The Berlin specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica. Image credit:

Of course, over the last century or so, the expansion of the science has been worldwide, bringing to light new discoveries and methods with people from all over the globe making their contributions. This is most likely due to the way that dinosaurs have always captured the imagination of any culture and serves as the gateway for people to explore other aspects of palaeontology.

This mania for prehistoric worlds, however, really started in Britain during the Victorian era, when the science transitioned from a bland (in the opinion of the general public) naturalist debate to an exciting glimpse into worlds that come before, delighting the public who were enraptured by the idea. Ok, not all of them were particularly nice people, nor is Britain solely responsible for the mania, but it was these great minds that gave the science that initial kick into the mainstream. From there, Hollywood and other media forms soon caught on by how excited people were by giant reptiles and the rest is...well...history.

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