paleontology (pā´lēəntŏl´əjē) [Gr.,= study of early beings], science of the life of past geologic periods based on fossil remains. Knowledge of the existence of fossils dates back at least to the ancient Greeks, who appear to have regarded them as the remains of various mythological creatures. Because few fossils are found in rock older than the late Precambrian, paleontology is generally concerned with only the past 600 million years. Although paleontology deals with early forms of life, it is usually treated as a part of geology rather than of biology, as the environment of the animals and plants cannot be properly understood and reconstructed without knowledge of the age, structure, and composition of the rocks in which their remains are found. In addition, fossil evidence is often used for the establishment of the ages of rock strata. Micropaleontology, the study of microscopic fossils, is especially important for the recognition of subsurface strata in drilling for petroleum. The field of paleontology is often divided into paleobotany, the study of ancient plants (also known as paleophytology); palynology, which focuses on ancient spores, pollen, and microorganisms; and paleozoology, the study of ancient animals, which can further be broken down into invertebrate (no backbones, e.g., clams) or vertebrate (with backbone, e.g., dinosaurs) studies. Paleontology as a science separate from geology dates from the 19th cent., especially from the work of French naturalist Georges Cuvier on fossils and from the publication of the evolutionary hypothesis of Charles Darwin.

See U. N. Lanham, The Bone Hunters (1973); S. J. Gould, The History of Paleontology (1980); R. M. Black, The Elements of Paleontology (1989); S. Parker, Practical Paleontologist (1991).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Paleontology: Selected full-text books and articles

The Epic History of Biology By Anthony Serafini Plenum Press, 1993
What Bugged the Dinosaurs? Insects, Disease, and Death in the Cretaceous By George Poinar Jr; Roberta Poinar Princeton University Press, 2008
FREE! The Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1896: The History of Its First Half Century By George Brown Goode; Smithsonian Institution Smithsonian Institution, 1897
Evolution and Man By Hervey Woodburn Shimer Ginn and Company, 1929
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VI "Evidence of Man from Paleontology"
Fossils, Teeth, and Sex: New Perspectives on Human Evolution By Charles E. Oxnard Hong Kong University Press, 1987
Exceptional Fossil Preservation: A Unique View on the Evolution of Marine Life By David J. Bottjer; Walter Etter; James W. Hagadorn; Carol M. Tang Columbia University Press, 2002
The History of Science in the United States: An Encyclopedia By Marc Rothenberg Garland, 2001
Librarian’s tip: "Paleontology " begins on p. 422
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