Micro Musings: Who Invented Paleontology?

You may be surprised by the answer!

(Cover image credit: Chinese art from ca. 1100 CE illustrating an anticline, Digitized from: Needham, 19861)

In this week’s short Micro Musings I want to answer the question: who invented paleontology? As part of my answer to this question, I will also introduce the second member of my Founding Five: 11th century Chinese scientist Shen Kuo.

Image of my founding five paleontologists showing illustrations of Mary Anning and Shen Kuo with three others hidden.
My “Founding Five.” Number 2 is Shen Kuo, but who are the other 3? Let me know if you have gusses!

Can you guess who I think was the inventor of paleontology? I’m sure you’ll try to game the system by naming someone who isn’t from Europe (you may be correct). But who?

First, let me start with Shen Kuo.

You have probably never heard of Kuo before, I know I hadn’t before I started researching this blog. In the 11th Century, Kuo described the odd abundance of marine shells in high mountain cliffs. He suggested that the mountains once were underwater and had since been lifted up to their present heights1. His hypothesis of geologic uplift would predate similar writings in Europe by hundreds of years. He also determined how climate had changed over time based on the distribution of fossil bamboo1.

Kuo was a brilliant polymath, and he made numerous contributions to several scientific disciplines. I picked Kuo for two reasons: I honestly had never heard of him, and I want to show that it isn’t just women who are subject to “bias in the fossil record.”

Paleontology was always a diverse science, despite what our textbooks say.

So, who invented paleontology?


Honestly, my first guess was that it was someone from Europe. After all, that is where a majority of the “founding fathers” of paleontology are from.

According to Wikipedia, it was Leonardo Da Vinci, and we know Wikipedia is always right… aren’t they?

In the 1500’s, Da Vinci described how marine fossils in mountain peaks must indicate that these were once deposited under the sea2. He then suggested that some force, had moved the sea and lifted the seafloor up into the Italian peaks where they fossils rest today. Da Vinci’s writings obviously predate anything we most associate with paleontology, and he must the inventor of the science…

Right?

A landscape sketch showing rolling hills and steep cliffs with trees
Da Vinci’s landscape of the Arno Valley. The sketch even shows a fairly accurate representation of the turbidite strata in the Apennines. (Public Domain)

But, astute reader, you may remember how I just said Shen Kuo wrote the same thing in the 1000’s. Kuo wasn’t the only person writing about this odd arrangement of marine fossils on land. A Persian scientist, Ibn Sina, wrote almost the same words as Da Vinci at around the same time as Shen Kuo. Both of these scientists beat Da Vinci to the punch by some 400 years1.

Maybe Kuo and Ibn Sina were the co-inventors of paleontology, a sort of Newton-Leibniz of the paleontological record.


Not so fast!

There are similar writings about marine fossils in mountains from China dating back to the 4th Century, and these may have been referencing Indian Buddhist writings on the subject that date from the 2nd Century1!

Sketch of four fossils, oysters, clams, whirling tubes, and leaf-like organisms with Chinese writing
Depictions of fossils from Chinese writings in 1596, about contemporaneous with Da Vinci. Digitized from: Needham, 19861

The earliest known writings on the subject of paleontology date back, possibly, to ca. 530 BCE!

The Greek scientist Xenophanes described, once again, marine fossils in mountain peaks as well as fish fossils and fossil plants in stone quarries. However, the historicity of this account is not 100% because our only record of Xenophanes making these claims comes from a quote in a 3rd Century CE work1. If true though, this would make a good case that Xenophanes was the “inventor of paleontology.”

Illustration of Xenophanes. He's wearing a long toga-like robe and holds a walking stick
Xenophanes from a later fictionalized representation. (Public Domain)

But wait!

There may even be cuneiform texts that describe fossil fish dating back to the 600’s BCE. Once again, I say “may” because this isn’t for certain. A historian interpreted the Sumerian cuneiform word “stone-fish” as representing fossil fish based on context clues3. There is no hard evidence that the Sumerians were actually describing fossils, but it is possible.

This question of who invented paleontology is difficult to answer.

While the earliest writings on paleontology may date back to classical Greece, It seems likely that fossil collecting and basic paleontology were a part of human existence from the beginning.

I can easily imagine one of our ancient ancestors tens of thousands of years ago stumbling across a “dragon skull” lodged in stone. Like me, they may have been fascinated by the find, pried the bone from the stone, and carried it around as a prized possession. They would then use their knowledge of the world to explain the odd bones, or describe how they came from fanciful beasts who were covered in feathers and walked on two legs as they hunted lesser beasts in times and places unknown.

Is this any different than the paleontologists of today?

The main point here is most of us, myself included, never even considered Asia, or even ancient Greece, as a source of paleontological knowledge. We attribute concepts developed in the 11th-12th century by Chinese scientists as having been “discovered” in the 18th-19th Century in Europe.

We may never be able to answer the question of who invented paleontology. But we can acknowledge that a diverse community across the world has contributed to the science as long as there have been written records.

Paleontology was never a white European science.

Europeans were just lucky to survive the “bias of the fossil record.”

References

  1. Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 3, Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.
  2. Baucon, A. (2010). Leonardo da Vinci, the founding father of ichnology. Palaios25(6), 361-367.
  3. Eisler, R. (1943). Queries and Answers. Isis34(4), 363-364.

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