Monday, January 7, 2013

Old Rocks: It's About Time

Trilobite Fossil by Joanna Bourne

January 7

Old Rock 

Happy National Old Rock Day. Old Rock Day is the national day to celebrate all things paleontological. Paleontology is the scientific study of prehistoric life. It is one of the historical sciences. Historical sciences also include archaeology, geology, biology, astronomy, cosmology, philology and history.  Paleontology is also related to biology and geology since they study lifeforms fossilized within old rocks. There are two types of fossils, body and trace. Body fossils, such as the picture of the Trilobite above, contain portions of an organisms body. They are usually comprised of wood, bone or shell. Body fossils are rare to find since they tend to erode before they are discovered. The second type, trace fossils, are the fossilized remains left behind by the organism. These remains tend to be track,  burrows, marks left by feeding and fecal matter. Scientists can learn alot about an organism's diet by studying their fecal matter. 

History of Paleontology
The study of Paleontology wasn't formally introduced as a science until 1800. Yet that does not mean fossils weren't studied before that. There were many discoveries made in history by people who studied the fossil record. Let's take a brief trip back through time to explore the rocky road of paleontology before it became a recognized science. 

Scientist have found fossils in Neanderthal graves and believe the fossils were used for decorative or religious purposes. By studying the contents of their graves and their own skeletons, researchers can learn alot about them. In September of 2012, scientists concluded the Neanderthals wore feathers. How did they conclude this? By studying the fossilized remains of birds in three Neanderthal graves. You can learn more about this discovery at 

In ancient Greece, Xenophanes of Colophon (c.570 – c.475 BC), after studying fossilized shells, concluded that some areas of Earth's land had once been underwater. Aristotle (384-322 BC), on the other hand, believed life spontaneously developed from rocks or mud, or from "seeds of life.". He concluded that the fossil record were partial formations of creatures that had failed in the process. Most of the Roman and Greek scholars who studied fossils were like Aristotle, who did fully recognize fossils as a record of previous life forms. Many myths are created to explain the fossils and have been passed down for generations. 

During the Middle Ages (about 500-1450), fossils were considered to be the work of the Devil. According to this belief, the Devil formed something via plastica or "molding forces" in rocks, or simply "sports of nature" to trick human beings into questioning their faith. Although we live in a world with science, this Middle Age belief is still alive and well with us today. 

If the fossils weren't associated with the Devil then they were associated with God. In Middle Age Europe, many believed fossils were the remains of creatures who had died during Noah's Flood or other biblical disasters.  

In Middle Age China, fossils were believed to contain healing powers. The Chinese collected fossil bones and teeth to create dragon bone, a cure all concoction. Dragon bone is still sold in some places in China today. 

Despite the various myths and legends associated with fossils there were some scholars who had used the fossil record to develop accurate scientific conclusions. Shen Kuo (1031–1095AD), a Chinese naturalist, deduced from petrified bamboo that was found in areas of China too dry to grow bamboo the world had gone through climate changes. 

During the European Renaissance, engineer and artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519 AD) deduced marine fossils were a record of ancient lifeforms. He concluded they provided evidence that parts of the Earth's dry lands had once been undersea. 

Although these and other scholars had concluded the fossil record was indeed remains of living creatures, many people did not believe them. Most people continued to attribute the creation of fossils with either the Devil or God. 

It wasn't until the 17th century, that the study of fossils began to be accepted. This happened because of the Age of Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a cultural movement that had begun in Europe then moved into the American colonies. It was an exciting time for scholars and common man alike. According to Wikipedia "Its purpose was to reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advance knowledge through the scientific method. It promoted science, skepticism and intellectual interchange and opposed superstition, intolerance and some abuses by church and state."Fossil hunting became a common occurrence by commoners and scholars alike. 

You can learn more about the History of Paleontology by visiting this websites. 

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