Paleontology, also spelled palaeontology or palæontology (/ˌpeɪliɒnˈtɒlədʒi,ˌpæli-,-ən-/), is the scientific study of life that existed prior to, and sometimes including, the start of the Holocene Epoch (roughly 11,700 years before present). It includes the study of fossils to classify organisms and study interactions with each other and their environments (their paleoecology). Paleontological observations have been documented as far back as the 5th century BCE. The science became established in the 18th century as a result of Georges Cuvier's work on comparative anatomy, and developed rapidly in the 19th century. The term itself originates from Greek παλα'palaios, "old, ancient", ὄν, on (gen.ontos), "being, creature", and λόγος, logos, "speech, thought, study".
Body fossils and trace fossils are the principal types of evidence about ancient life, and geochemical evidence has helped to decipher the evolution of life before there were organisms large enough to leave body fossils. Estimating the dates of these remains is essential but difficult: sometimes adjacent rock layers allow radiometric dating, which provides absolute dates that are accurate to within 0.5%, but more often paleontologists have to rely on relative dating by solving the "jigsaw puzzles" of biostratigraphy (arrangement of rock layers from youngest to oldest). Classifying ancient organisms is also difficult, as many do not fit well into the Linnaean taxonomy classifying living organisms, and paleontologists more often use cladistics to draw up evolutionary "family trees". The final quarter of the 20th century saw the development of molecular phylogenetics, which investigates how closely organisms are related by measuring the similarity of the DNA in their genomes. Molecular phylogenetics has also been used to estimate the dates when species diverged, but there is controversy about the reliability of the molecular clock on which such estimates depend. (Full article...)
Selected article on the prehistoric world and its legacies
Hypsibema missouriensis (pronounced /ˌhɪpsɪˈbiːməmɪˌzʊəriˈɛnsɪs/; originally Neosaurus missouriensis, first renamed to Parrosaurus missouriensis, also spelled Hypsibema missouriense) is a species of plant-eatingdinosaur in the genusHypsibema, and the state dinosaur of the U.S. stateMissouri. One of the few official state dinosaurs, bones of the species were discovered in 1942, at what later became known as the Chronister Dinosaur Site near Glen Allen, Missouri. The remains of Hypsibema missouriensis at the site, which marked the first known discovery of dinosaur remains in Missouri, are the only ones to have ever been found. Although first thought to be a sauropod, later study determined that it was a hadrosaur, or "duck-billed" dinosaur, whose snouts bear likeness to ducks' bills. Some of the species' bones found at the Chronister Dinosaur Site are housed in Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution. (see more...)
Selected article on paleontology in human science, culture and economics
The Bone Wars is the name given to a period of intense fossil speculation and discovery during the Gilded Age of American history, marked by a heated rivalry between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. The two paleontologists used underhanded methods to out-compete the other in the field, resorting to bribery, theft, and destruction of bones. The scientists also attacked each other in scientific publications, attempting to ruin the other's credibility and cut off his funding.
Originally colleagues who were civil to each other, Cope and Marsh became bitter enemies after several personal slights between them. Their pursuit of bones led them west to rich bone beds in Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. From 1877 to 1892, both paleontologists used their wealth and influence to finance their own expeditions and to procure services and fossils from dinosaur hunters. By the end of the Bone Wars, both men exhausted their funds in fueling their intense rivalry.
Cope and Marsh were financially and socially ruined by their efforts to disgrace each other, but their contributions to science and the field of paleontology were massive; the scientists left behind tons of unopened boxes of fossils on their deaths. The feud between the two men led to over 142 new species of dinosaurs being discovered and described. The products of the Bone Wars resulted in an increase in knowledge of ancient life, and sparked the public's interest in dinosaurs, leading to continued fossil excavation in North America in the decades to come. Several historical books and fictional adaptations have also been published about this period of intense paleontological activity. (see more...)
Two skeletons of women between 25 and 35 years of age preserved in the Tomb of Téviec. The tomb is dated to the Mesolithic between 6,740 and 5,680 years ago. They died a violent death, with several head injuries and impacts of arrows. The two bodies were buried with great care in a pit half in the basement rock (underlying or country rock) and half in the kitchen debris that covered them. The tomb is protected by antlers. The grave goods include flint and bone (mainly wild boar) offerings and funeral jewelry which is made of marine shells drilled and assembled into necklaces, bracelets and ankle ring. Some of the bone objects have engraved lines. The tomb was recovered in 1938 and restored in 2010.
Photo credit: Didier Descouens