Palaeontology History

The nineteenth century is usually an era I avoid like the plague, but a general interest in archaeology led me to writing this post. Away from industrialisation, work houses, Queen Victoria and Napoleon, small but significant discoveries were gaining momentum. Palaeontology, the study of fossils and essentially dinosaurs, picked up alongside vast medical studies in bones and centuries old debris. Many consider the Age of Enlightenment the source of an increase in archaeological digs and searches, yet the study of fossils and bones as a means of understanding the past is nothing new. Ancient Greeks such as Xenophanes in the sixth century BC, and Herodotus in the fifth century BC studied fossils from marine life in areas that used to be below water. Medieval naturalists across Europe and Asia looked at fossils in order to solve how they are formed, something the Persian Ibn Sina became famous for in his book The Book of Healing. During early modern era of Europe, fossil work became part of natural philosophy and was undertook by many as a primary interest. Pre-History was little understood, however links between the past and fossils was becoming clearer when moving into the eighteenth century. The study of science had grown tremendously since the seventeenth century with academies springing up across England and France.

Although Palaeontology as a word was not coined until 1822 by an editor of a French scientific journal, Georges Cuvier began to look at fossils as a form of cataloguing animals that seemed to have reached extinction. This naturally led to the earliest form of Geology to become a branch of science. Palaeontology as an occupation remained fledgling until the nineteenth century when the Academy of Science was noting several more professional geologists and fossil specialists becoming registered. From 1808 the concept of ‘dinosaurs’ was coming into light despite the first dinosaur bone being found in 1676 by Robert Plot, whose bone find is still unidentified. It is noted by archaeologists that marine fossils and bones are found in a denser supply then on land, this could be due to major shifts in the earth. The earth that the dinosaurs walked on was vastly different to the one we walk today. Many historians suppose that the increase in atheism and thoughts on evolution, instead of Creationist Theory, in the nineteenth century expanded the sudden boom in archaeological digs, specifically across Asia and the Americas. It took several decades of searching before the first full skeleton was found in New Jersey, North America of the Hadrosaurus by William Parker Foulke in 1858. This remains the only full skeleton found of this species, although archaeologists and palaeontologists agree that it is closely related to the Iguanodon found in England in 1822 by Gideon Mantell. Pre-History is not an era that is popular among normal academic historians since much of it was subjective until the recent changes in bio-archaeology which makes bones and fossils easier to date. Much of the historiography is led by archaeologists and palaeontologists, historians tend to focus of the chronology of the eras. It was during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that words such as ‘Jurassic’ and ‘Mesozoic’ were beginning to be used to identify periods of time, and to acknowledge when certain dinosaurs tended to exist.

Academically palaeontology has a long history, yet socially the concept is still very young. In a century that was still largely religious the debate between science and religion was heated. Even today there are scientists and religions attempting to reconcile the two fields, as such Robert Asher’s book on Evolution and Belief (Cambridge, 2012) show him trying to accept both his occupation in palaeontology and his faith in his religion. He has made it his life work in studying Darwinism while at the same time trying to create his own theory on how the world began and developed. Charles Darwin is famous for his contribution to Evolutionary theory, his 1859 book On the Origin of Species became the foundation of evolutionary biology, the basis of which was his 1830 expedition on HMS Beagle. By 1879, evolution in science became widely acknowledged as fact. The belief that apes evolved into humans, birds in the same species developed different beaks according to where they are from became a literal antagonist to people whose belief was in God and their respective religions. This was particularly prevalent in the nineteenth century, despite being a prominent scientist, Darwin’s theory was respected but distanced from the Church of England. His theory of natural selection also contradicted God’s will. Religion and Science still hotly debate, this is echoed even in popular culture shows such as The Big Bang Theory in which Sheldon, a theoretical physicist, holds disdain from his mother who is deeply religious and believes in the Creation theory. Also in popular culture, Ross Geller put the occupation on the map when David Schwimmer played the palaeontologist for the ten-year run of Friends, where he encountered differences in beliefs with Phoebe.

While England debated, America was digging. Throughout the nineteenth century, several hundred types of dinosaurs, fossils and aquatic discoveries were being made. Biological advances increased in species being named, extinct animals studied and vast catalogues were being created. Many can been seen in Natural History museums all over the world, most particularly those in New York and London. Discoveries in fossils are everywhere, yet the more concentrated finds of dinosaurs are in Africa, Asia and America, with the most well know the Tyrannosaurus Rex being found in 1902 in Montana, America. All continents have yielded a dinosaur bone, the exception was Antarctica which did not unearth a bone until 1987 when an entire skeleton was found. Palaeontology has grown over the decades until the Palaeontology Association was founded in 1957 to become to world leading experts in the field. Although having a societal reputation of being ‘dull’ the palaeontology field is one of the most vibrant in discoveries since finds are still being found. Particularly when technological advances increased the likelihood of several more major discoveries to come. For more information please look at the websites below:


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