Paleontology is the study of the fossilized evidence of former life. This evidence may include the remains of bones (fossils), tracks, burrows, and feces.


Although observations of fossils were documented for centuries beforehand, paleontology became a useful scientific branch in the late 1700's when Georges Cuvier utilized comparative anatomy to demonstrate that some fossil species did not resemble modern ones. Fossil evidence has helped define the geological time scale and contributed to our understanding of evolutionary paths. The word paleontology was coined in 1822.

Radiometric dating, invented in 1905, allowed paleontologists to date fossil finds more accurately. In about the 1960's paleontologists began using molecular phylogenetics to aid in their understanding of historical evolution.

Significant paleontological discoveries[]

  • Gunflint Chert stromatolites--Minnesota, cyanobacterial accretionary structures, 1.9 to 2.3 billion years ago (BYA)
  • Ediacaran biota--worldwide, trace fossils of earliest known Pre-Cambrian multicellular organisms, 635 to 542 MYA
  • Chengjiang Maotianshan shales--Yunnan Province (China), rare soft tissue fossils from middle Lower Cambrian, 525 to 520 MYA
  • Burgess Shale--British Columbia, early soft-parts fossils from middle Cambrian, 505 MYA
  • Tiktaalic--northern Canada, a transitional fossil between fish and early tetrapods from the Late Devonian, about 375 MYA
  • Archaeopteryx--southern Germany, a transitional fossil between dinosaurs and birds from the Late Jurassic, 150 to 145 MYA
  • Laetoli footprints--Tanzania, preserved upright-walking hominid footprints discovered in 1976 by Mary Leakey, 3.5 MYA
  • Lucy--Ethiopia, an Australopithecus afarensis fossil found in 1974 by Donald Johanson, about 3.2 MYA


  • Ardi--Ethiopia, An Ardipithecus ramidus fossil discovered in 1994 by Tim D. White, about 4 Ma.

Paleontology and creationists[]

In order to reconcile paleontological discoveries with their belief in biblical inerrancy, creationists have misrepresented facts about the fossil record. Creationists claim that the fact of gradual evolution would have resulted in the presence of innumerable transitional forms in the fossil record. For example, the Jehovah's Witnesses publication Life--How did it get here? By evolution or by creation?notes:

Millions of bones and other evidence of past life have been unearthed by scientists, and these are called fossils. If evolution were a fact, surely in all of this there should be ample evidence of one kind of living thing evolving into another kind. (p. 19)

The claim explicitly assumes that fossilization is a common event and that all past evolutionary activity is recorded by it. This assumption is demonstrably false. [1] Additionally the claim makes the assumption that evolution is gradual. Although the fact of evolution is nearly universally accepted among paleontologists, there are disagreements as to the mode and tempo of evolution. Note that a punctuational model of evolution would explain the rarity of transitional forms.

Contrary to the claim there are transitional fossils. [2] When such transitional fossils are identified, creationists have then attempted to suggest that they are not sufficiently transitional or even that they are fraudulent, as for example Australopithecus or Archaeopteryx.

Similarly creationists claim that the fossil record reveals that species appear suddenly, as in the Cambrian explosion, and do not change much during their lifespan, and that this observation is not consistent with predictions generated from the tenets of evolution. In reality the degree of suddenness in these cases is overstated, and species do in fact change over long periods of time. [3] This claim also depends on the assumption that evolution occurs at a consistent and gradual rate.

To support their claim that paleontologists themselves believe the fossil record fails to provide evidence for the Theory of Evolution, creationists cite quotes taken out of context.

Creationists claim that patterns in the fossil record can be better explained as being the results of Noah's flood. [4] However, this claim requires the denial of many observations of the fossil record, such as geographic and stratigraphic distribution of species.

Thus paleontology is one of several branches of science you have to ignore to believe in Young Earth Creationism.

Careers in paleontology[]

Industrial paleontologists can be found conducting research for the petroleum industry. Academic paleontologists typically work as college or university professors. Paleontologists can work as museum preparators or on government surveys. They can work in the fields of climate change or historical biology.

Paleontology is a broad science requiring knowledge of geology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, zoology, genetics, ecology, and systematics. It uses techniques drawn from biochemistry, mathematics, and engineering.

Paleontology is an unusual field in that amateurs also may make important contributions.

Noted paleontologists[]

  • David Raup
  • Stephen Jay Gould
  • Colin Patterson
  • Louis Agassiz
  • Georges Cuvier

Paleontological organizations[]


  1. See Talk Origins' response to the claim that transitional fossils are lacking. [1]
  2. Transitional Fossils & Evolution - What Are Transitional Fossils? From
  3. See Talk Origins' response to the claim that the Cambrian explosion shows all kinds of life appearing suddenly. [2]
  4. Woodmorappe, John (April 1, 2000). "The fossil record: Becoming more random all the time". Answers in Genesis.

Adapted from Liberapedia

External links[]