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  Palaeontology (Greek, ‘study of ancient organisms’) is the study of prehistoric animal and plant species by the investigation of their fossil remains, though the term is generally restricted to the study of animal remains (see palaeobotany for plant fossil studies). This branch of science was, in effect, founded by the French biologist George Cuvier (1769 - 1832): previously fossils had been viewed as the leftovers from creation, representing abandoned designs. Although Cuvier believed in creation, he concluded that the quadruped skeletons which he reconstructed from fragmentary fossil remains were not present in the modern world because of extinctions caused by catastrophes, such as the great flood described in the Bible. He was not able to fully explain his observation that older geological strata contained fossils which were less like species seen today than the fossils found in younger strata. In 1812, he published his book Researches on the Bones of Fossil Vertebrates, and he went on to introduce fossil animals to zoological classification.

As the title of Cuvier\'s book suggests, early palaeontology was dominated by the study of vertebrate fossils, as the vertebrate bones are more readily preserved in fossil form than the remains of soft-bodied animals such as worms. Modern palaeontology is still subject to this bias. Although fossilized invertebrates have been found in rocks of great antiquity, and have been instrumental in determining the course taken by evolution from the earliest fossil evidence of primitive blue-green algae in the three-billion-year-old Fig Tree Chert fossils, to the remains of early man discovered since the 1970s by Richard Leakey and others. Fossil remains of man, animals, plants and all manner of organic material have been used by palaeoanthropologists and archaeologists to study the lifestyle of ancient societies. RB

See also analogy; biogenesis; biopoiesis; homology.Further reading Martin Rudwick, The Meaning of Fossils.



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