Imagine, you are wandering along a beach, looking at the shells. There are so many different, pretty colors, but you notice one which is a little strange. It looks funny, more a like rock than a shell and when you pick it up you realize that it is far too heavy to simply be a shell! You wonder, did somebody carve it, or is it a fossil, a shell like the ones you might have seen wandering along the beach thousands of years ago.
When I took these fossilized shells to show the children, it was interesting to see their reaction. They have seen many fossils from my collection, and many of them are very similar in appearance to modern shells. In fact, often it takes quite some time for the kids to work out that they are fossils at all. These fossils though are very different. They look, as one child said, almost as if somebody carved them from sandstone.
Last time we looked at the history of paleontology, we had just reached Steno, who had proposed that rock is laid down in layers, with the oldest ones at the bottom. This was a revolutionary idea, but many people still thought the oldest layers of fossils dated just back to the time of Noah's flood. People were becoming ever more fascinated with fossils and in the 1700s fossils collecting became a serious hobby for gentlemen and workers alike. It was at this time, the so called 'Age of Enlightenment' that fossils began to be more carefully studied. Georges Cuvier and William Smith studied rock formations across Europe and showed that the strata of rocks in different areas could be matched up based on the types of fossils they held. Thus, all the rocks with one specific type of fossil probably came from the same time. Other scientists were studying and classifying fossils in a more consistent manner, much more in line with a modern approach.
Yet the idea of Noah's flood did not disappear. In the late 1700s, early 1800s however there were a growing number of naturalists, as they were known, who were suggesting that fossils had a much longer, more complex history. People like James Hutton argued that rock strata were laid down over a long, slow process and not the result of a few short lived catastrophes and between 1830 and 1833 these ideas were brought together in Principals Of Geology by Charles Lyell. One of the ideas that Lyell emphasized was that you could see changes in the fossil record over time, and this idea influenced Charles Darwin, the Father of Evolution. In essence, the scientists of the day had noticed that fossils evolved over time. There were many who opposed Darwin's theory of evolution and his ideas about natural selection but growing numbers of scientists began to accept his ideas and by 1890 the work of Charles Mendel on pea plants, which showed that they inherited certain traits from both their 'mother' and 'father', had been rediscovered and was being studied. The work was originally published in 1866.
Next week we will finish the story of paleontology, and Roy will show you how to make your own 'fossils'