Paleontology or palaeontology is the study of prehistoric life on Earth, especially through fossils, and is an important tool for studying organisms' evolution. A traveller can find museums and dig sites which tell the story of our planet before recorded history, before mankind, before land animals, even before vertebrates.
The oldest fossils go back over 600 million years. Among the most interesting are:
- the dinosaurs (reptiles of the Mezozoic Era, 245 to 66 million years ago)
- other great beasts such as mammoths and sabertooth tigers
- (mammals of the Pliocene epoch, about 5 million years ago, to the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago)
- the various extinct human or proto-human species (around 3.5 million to 40,000 years ago)
Of course there are many other epochs, each with different fossils.
Some travellers also dig up fossils themselves; see Rockhounds.
|“||Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.||”|
Fossils are most often formed when some creature is buried in mud or silt which later turns into sedimentary rock, most often shale or limestone. Most fossil beds are on the sites of ancient bodies of water — rivers, lakes, marshes or seas.
There are both animal and plant fossils. Animals' bones and other durable parts like scales or feathers are often turned to rock, but generally something a bit different from the surrounding rock so the fossil can be recognized. Sometimes the bones can be separated from the surrounding rock; this is how the museums get skeletons. Some plants become petrified wood, and coal may preserve traces of the plants it is formed from.
Creatures may also be preserved in other ways, caught in amber or tar, or frozen like some mammoths found in Siberia.
Not all paleontology involves fossils. In particular, while some sites for ancient humans or proto-humans may have fossils others have unfossilized bones, and in any case the tools and other artifacts are at least as interesting as the human remains.
Too many museums to mention have paleontological exhibits. Here is a selection of museums with collections beyond the usual.
- 1 American Museum of Natural History (New York City, near Central Park).
- 2 Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago/Near South, United States). Museum with a wide array of displays on the flora and fauna of different eras, as well as some archaeological exhibits. Best known for being the home of Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton yet discovered. T. rex was the last and largest of the tyrannosaurs, about 68 to 66 million years ago.
- 3 Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The largest natural history museum in the western US.
- 4 National Museum of Brazil (Museu Nacional) (Rio de Janeiro). This museum has seven departments, one of which is paleontology. It sadly burnt down in September 2018 and is being slowly reconstructed.
- 5 National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution) (National Mall in Washington DC). This museum has the world's largest natural history collection, and the largest team of scientists working on natural history. It is the second most visited such museum on Earth, after the one in London. free.
- 6 Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Highway 838, Drumheller, Alberta, Canada. A spectacular range of exhibits showing off the rich fossils of the Alberta badlands, from dinosaurs to pollen. It also has some exhibits that were found elsewhere, including a "dinosaur mummy", a fossilized nodosaur with its skin and armour intact.
Plenty to see and do. Hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. There are a variety of moderate hikes to fossil artifacts, starting from the museum during the summer.
- 7 Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Annex district, Toronto. Canada's largest museum. It has sponsored many digs all over Canada and has a fine collection of fossils, in particular many dinosaurs and probably the world's best collection of the strange creatures of the #Burgess Shale.
- 8 National Science Museum (国立科学博物館 Kokuritsu kagaku hakubutsukan), Tokyo/Ueno, Japan. A prominent collection of dinosaur fossils.
- 9 Shandong Tianyu Natural History Museum (山东省天宇自然博物馆) (Linyi, China). Enormous museum of natural history built by a local billionaire to house his enormous personal collection of fossils and minerals. The museum holds the Guinness World Record for largest dinosaur museum in the world and there are numerous Guinness World Record awarded items inside, usually for being the largest.
- 10 Zigong Dinosaur Museum (自贡恐龙博物馆) (Zigong, China). Located on top of the Dashanpu Formation, China's most famous dinosaur fossil site, where hundreds of dinosaur fossils have been found since the 1970s. The museum was the first museum in China to be devoted exclusively to dinosaurs. Besides the usual displays, one can also view an excavation pit where fossils have been unearthed.
- 11 Natural History Museum (London/South Kensington-Chelsea, United Kingdom). Palaeontology is one of five major sections of this famous museum, and is home to thousands of extinct specimens, large and small. Unlike most other museums of its size and genre, this one is completely free to enter.
- 12 Neanderthal Museum (Mettmann, Germany). A museum dedicated to the Neanderthal Man, Homo neanderthalensis, who populated much of Europe and the Middle East until they were displaced by Homo sapiens and went extinct around 40,000 BCE. Modern humans, especially those with East Asian or European ancestry, have some Neanderthal DNA.
- 13 National Dinosaur Museum, Gungahlin, Canberra, Australia. This museum has the largest collection of dinosaur and prehistoric fossil material in Australia, specialising in Australian megafauna.
Museums routinely trade exhibits. A European museum might have Neanderthal material, a North American one dinosaurs, and an Australian one some of that region's unique megafauna. After some trades, all three museums might have exhibits in all three categories.
Fine specimens are also sometimes sold at auction, the better ones at prices where only museums, millionaires and large companies can afford to bid. For example, Google have a fine example of Tyrannosaurus rex on their headquarters campus.
- 1 Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania). This site has some of the oldest proto-human fossils and tools. There is a museum.
- 2 Cradle of Humankind (South Africa). A UNESCO World Heritage Site with many caves, some of which can be visited, and a museum.
The region just east of the Rocky Mountains has many of the world's finest dinosaur sites, on both sides of the US/Canada border, and both countries also have other fossil sites.
- 3 La Brea Tar Pits, 5801 Wilshire Blvd (Los Angeles, California (in the Wilshire area)). An area in the middle of L.A. with Ice Age beasts preserved in tar. Has a large museum.
- 4 Dinosaur National Monument (Colorado–Utah border, United States). In addition to many fossils, the area has Native American petroglyphs, some up to 10,000 years old.
- 5 Fossil Butte National Monument (Wyoming, United States). This was a subtropical lake bed about 50 million years ago. The fossils include fish, alligators, bats, turtles, dog-sized horses, insects, and many other species of plants and animals.
- 6 Potomac Highlands (West Virginia, United States). This is one of the few areas where visitors are allowed to collect fossils. The fossils are marine creatures from the Devonian period (the "Age of Fishes", roughly 420 to 360 million years ago), before the dinosaurs.
- See also: Palaeontology in Canada
- 7 Dinosaur Provincial Park (Brooks, Alberta). A UNESCO World Heritage Site with two small museums, often visited on the same trip as the nearby #Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.
- Burgess Shale. This rock formation has outcrops at several sites in the Canadian Rockies, some in BC's Yoho National Park. The fossils are of marine life from the Cambrian Era, around 500 million years ago, and many of them preserve the soft parts of the animals. The species represented are extremely diverse, and many are distinctly odd compared to later lifeforms. How to classify them and how they fit into the history of evolution are matters of considerable controversy.
The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto sponsored some of the digs and has a fine collection of the fossils.
- 8 Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve (Newfoundland). A UNESCO World Heritage Site home to some of the best preserved pre-Cambrian (Ediacaran) fossils in the world.
- 9 Joggins Fossil Cliffs (Nova Scotia, Canada). Another Canadian UNESCO World Heritage Site which is renowned for its fossil cliffs, which date to more than 310 million years ago.
- 10 Miguasha National Park (Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec). Another Canadian UNESCO World Heritage Site, with fossils from the Devonian "Age of Fishes" from 420 to 360 million years ago.
- 11 Jurassic Coast (Devon / Dorset, United Kingdom). One of the earliest (19th century) places where fossils were studied scientifically, where dinosaurs were first described.
- 12 Franconian Switzerland (Germany).
- See also: Paleontology in China
- 13 Denisova Cave (Altai Krai, Siberia). Site where an extinct human species related to Neanderthals were first discovered. Remains are about 40,000 years old and the Denisovans seem to have ranged across much of Asia.
- 14 Chaoyang Bird Fossil National Geopark (朝阳鸟化石国家地质公园; Cháoyáng Niǎohuàshí Guójiādìzhìgōngyuán) (Chaoyang, Liaoning Province, China). On this site during the 1990s, fossils were found that revolutionised human understanding of dinosaurs and the evolution of birds. In Chaoyang, they found feathered dinosaurs as well as some of the earliest examples of birds.
- 15 Guanling Fossil Group National Geopark (关岭化石群国家地质公园) (Anshun, Guizhou Province, China). Centered around a geological formation known as the Guanling Formation, which is notable for its Triassic fossils. A number of these fossils are displayed at an on-site museum. The museum includes three excavation pits where you can see fossils in situ. There is even a site where visitors are permitted to dig for fossils on their own (though whether you would be allowed to keep them and take them out of the country is another matter).
- 16 Maotianshan Shales (帽天山页岩, 澄江化石地 Chengjiang Fossil Site) (Chengjiang, Yunnan Province, China). A world heritage listed site rich in fossils from the Cambrian Period. Some of the fossils are displayed at an on-site museum. The rest can be seen at a much larger museum located about 8km from the site.
- 17 Zhoukoudian Peking Man Site (周口店北京人遗址) (Fangshan District, Beijing, China). A UNESCO World Heritage Site and landmark site in paleoanthropology. The site is comprised of the caves of the Peking Man evacuation and a nearby museum containing plaster casts of the recovered skulls, mandibles, facial bones, limbs, and teeth. Peking Man is actually a collection of fossils of around 40 individuals of the species Homo erectus, dated from 770,000 to 230,000 years ago.
The Peking Man fossils stored in Beijing disappeared in 1941 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The missing fossils are one of the "long-standing mysteries in the history of human evolution.".
- 18 Liang Bua Caves (Ruteng, Flores, Indonesia). The prehistoric caves where the fossils of Homo florensis were found. The small museum next to the cave has a replica of the skeleton; the original is in Jakarta. The caves themselves are not particularly special, but the surroundings and the road there are very pretty.
- 19 Sangiran Early Man Site (Solo, Central Java, Indonesia). The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an archeological treasure trove of fossils and remnants from the prehistoric era. The most important discovery however was the skeleton of the Java Man (Pithecanthropus erectus) an important predecessor of the modern human. The site contains a museum housing the archaeological finds as well as an archaeological park.
- 20 Shivalik Fossil Park (Suketi Fossil Park) (Sirmaur (district), Himachal Pradesh, India). Asia's biggest fossil park. The park has fossil (skeletal) remains, replications of extinct animals and a museum.
- See also: Paleontology in Australia
- 21 Naracoorte Caves National Park (Naracoorte, South Australia). UNESCO world heritage site. A range of 28 caves (although only 4 are open to the public) with numerous fossils found with plenty of unique species only found here including some Australian megafauna, large beasts which existed from about 1.6 million years ago. They went extinct about 44,000 years ago, and there is debate over whether this was caused by humans or by climate events.
- 22 Riversleigh (Boodjamulla National Park, Queensland). The fossils are from the Ogliocene and Miocene eras, 28 to 6 million years ago. Among other things, 35 species of bat have been identified.
- 23 Nilpena Ediacara National Park (Ediacara Conservation Park). Home to one of the largest fossil deposits from the Ediacaran era, which was was named after this park. That was the last pre-Cambrian era, roughly 635 to 541 million years ago. Canada's #Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve is another Ediacaran site.
- 24 Brachina Gorge (Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park, South Australia). Similar to neighbouring Nilpena Ediacara, this gorge has some of the world's oldest fossils. Seeing the fossils can be done on a 20-kilometre geological trail.
- 25 Lark Quarry Dinosaur Trackways (Dinosaur Stampede National Monument), Opalton, Queensland. The world's only known record of a dinosaur stampede.
In some places you can actually "fossil hunt" yourself, but this may be subject to a number of local regulations, as well as import/export restrictions when crossing borders. In some cases what you find in terms of "fossils" is so commonplace that no protection need to be enforced, but it is a great way to spend a day with children (especially the "dinosaur crowd") as well as to introduce amateur paleontologists to the subject. Some museums that sit in appropriate geological contexts even offer fossil hunting as a part of their program and you should certainly take advantage of that if possible. One of the eras that is rather "packed" with common - though pretty - fossils is limestone from the Jurassic era as it can be found in Franconian Switzerland and the English Jurassic Coast.
If you want to look for rare or valuable fossils, you would most likely have to connect with a university or science-institute who do more sophisticated digs and actually find fossils that haven't been found or at least not been scientifically described before. In many cases those digs are only open to people with legitimate science degrees in the appropriate field(s) or studying towards one. In case you need to cross borders for such, a tourist visa may sometimes not be the category to apply for in those cases.
- Archaeological sites
- Historical travel
- Prehistoric Europe
- Ice Age traces
- Paleontology in Australia
- Palaeontology in Canada
- Paleontology in China