Few people can miss a fossil . Those strange petrified forms, remains of species that seem like science fiction to us. And, among so much fascination, who was the person who discovered the first fossil? Well, to be honest: we have no idea.
Since humans have a modicum of curiosity, they would look at fossils, wondering when they come across them. Fossils have been found in Paleolithic caves , so our ancestors took these strange rocks home with them and it would be worth listening to the answers they invented to explain such findings. Another thing is that they could know what the fossils really were. That is another topic and there we enter the wonderful path of the birth of Paleontology.
Imagination to power
As it happens with all science and discipline, there is no specific day in which we say: “ea, and paleontology was created”. They always have a process and, more than one, several key moments that served to continue taking steps towards the science we know today. In fact, we continue to take steps. It is the idea of all science: to always advance towards more and more knowledge.
Imagine realizing that what you have in front of you is not a rock, but the remains of an animal from millions of years ago. It was not easy to begin to affirm such an idea.
To go back to a time in which we can put a name and surname, we will go to the first century. We read the term “fossil” for the first time to Pliny the Elder , which comes from the Latin fossile (“which is obtained by digging”), which in turn comes from the verb fodere (“to dig”). These Romans always so practical. Of course, Pliny would be clear that they were strange objects that came out of the earth, but from there to identifying ancient species there was still a little more to go.
As that moment arrived, every crazy theory you could imagine about the origin of fossils was defended: since creatures were created from mud, fossils were glitches in the creation process; monstrous animals created by gods; that they were the remains of the animals that did not get to climb Noah’s ark; others spoke of giants from the past, like the Cyclopes; some wanted to see dragon bones… the list could be as long as it is crazy.
On the shoulders of giants who studied other giants
But we got to a point where the grandfathers and grandmothers of paleontology made scientific theories. At the time they sounded just as crazy as the ones in the previous paragraph, but today they are key to the work of paleontologists.
We could even mention Leonardo Da Vinci, who did everything, so he also made observations as a naturalist. Among his hundreds of notes was found a drawing of the Paleodictyon, a fossil that looks like a honeycomb. But we want you to be able to finish reading this article today. So we come a little closer in time.
It was in 1812 that Georges Léopold Chrétien Fréderic Dagobert Cuvier ( Georges Cuvier, to friends) said that fossils were animals that had died long ago. He is considered the father of paleontology and, without a doubt, one of the first to record that he is seeing the right thing when observing a fossil, or at least getting closer than anyone up to that time. Shortly afterwards Charles Lyell published Principles of Geology , with theories on sedimentation and strata formation, in a context in which the theories of the Bible continued to carry much weight.
In November 1859 we have an outstanding milestone: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life was published, that is, the famous work The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. It was a conceptual revolution at the time, with which Darwin defended the evolution of species and natural selection , that is: that species change and the most adapted survive and continue reproducing offspring that will continue to evolve ( gross mode ).
While the theory of evolution was permeating intellectual thought, the Anning family was discovering fossils. Mary Anning, considered the first paleontologist in history , unearthed fossil remains along the cliffs of Lyme Regis, in England. By the end of the century, we already had paleontologists dedicated to the study of dinosaurs and large reptiles, such as Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope .
From fiction to science
In 1891, Eugène Dubois discovered the first remains of Homo erectus on the island of Java, sparking a real fever for paleontology that studies the evolution of the human being. In 1925, Raymond Arthur Dart ‘s discovery of an australopithecus skull put us, for the first time, on the trail that we came from the monkey. Although, if it is about making paleontology popular, there is no finding that can be compared with the desire to study fossils that the cinema aroused. There is a whole generation of paleontologists who were fascinated by the adventures of Littlefoot and, above all, the Jurassic Park saga that Steven Spielberg started (honorable mention goes to the forgotten Michael Crichton , author of the novel on which the movie was based).
In the end, all human interest in fossils comes from trying to find answers. In the end, from prehistory to today, we all suck at fantasy to show ourselves truly fascinated by fossils. Therefore, we cannot know who discovered the first fossils, but we do know who the pioneers in studying them were.
Anton. M. 2007. The secret of fossils. Aguilar.Mayor, A. 2000. The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton University Press.Vicente, A. et al. 2018. In Search of the Lost Origin . Paid.