Sunday, 2 December 2018

Palaeontology vs Archaeology

To most palaeontologists and archaeologists, the general public often ask if we study what the other group of scientists does. For example, I can say I study dinosaurs and people will ask if I am an archaeologist (when not saying like Ross from Friends...), but I know archaeologists have the same questions about dinosaurs. So this isn't an annoyed public service announcement, it is actually an interesting point and something that is worth discussing.

So what does Google image search turn up if we look for archaeologist and palaeontologist (I'm sticking to British spellings)?

Google image search 04/11/2018 archaeologist. Spot Indiana Jones in the bottom row twice.
Google image search 04/11/2018 palaeontologist.
Generally lots of people working with bones, and of course some Indiana Jones who I discuss a bit more later. Why do these searches produce results that on the face of it look so similar if I am indeed claiming a difference? Let's do a quick etymology (their derivation, in this case from Greek) of the words palaeontology and archaeology:

Palaeontology: old life studies, i.e. the study of old life (palaios - old, on - life, logos - study)
Archaeology: ancient study, i.e. the study of old things (arkhaios - ancient, logos - as above)

As you can see from their definitions, they could easily be one and the same. And archaeology can and does involve palaeontology. It all stems from the first people who worked on studying ancient life, being antiquarians (particularly those of Europe) who in the late 1800s begin to scientifically study the ancient world. Before this, the "study" was based around collecting various artifacts/artefacts (depending on your national preference for the spelling) and oddities in a non-scientific fashion. From these early antiquarians the studies would eventually spawn into what we know today, where palaeontology tends to focus on ancient life outside of humans, and archaeology focuses on the study of human culture. They overlap in two main areas, 1) the study of early human remains through palaeoanthropology, and 2) in the remains of animals found on human sites.

Lucy the Australopithecus from 3.2 million years ago.
By 120 - own picture worked with photoshop, CC BY 2.5,
I suspect other palaeontologists/archaeologists will disagree on exactly where these boundaries are, and I would say that palaeontologists (at least to the general public) wouldn't study material that hasn't undergone at least some remineralisation (the process that transforms biological material into the rocks that we call fossils) but this can include some quite old material that are still "sub-fossils". These would include things like dodo skeletons, poo from extinct giant sloths etc. but would also likely include material mostly from the last million or so years. The lovely zone of overlap between palaeontology and biology/zoology/archaeology showing themselves here as I've rewritten this section lots of times.

Ground sloth poo, from Scott Person's twitter. Archaeological, palaeontological, zoological, all?
But what does it matter? In reality it doesn't really, we are all scientists who often study things that have been dug up from the ground. In the early days, these people may well have done the same (and in truth some still do). A great example is Roy Chapman Andrews, who was a researcher from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In the 1920s he launched a series of expeditions to China and Mongolia hoping to find the origin of humans in a time before the "Cradle of Humanity" in eastern and southern Africa had been discovered. He wouldn't find the first humans, but his expeditions and crews would go on to find the first dinosaur eggs in nests, famous dinosaurs, and mammals. As such he became a famous palaeontologist, with his name being used in the naming of Protoceratops andrewsi. Interestingly, his stories/books about his adventures and explorations may well have been at least partial inspiration for Indiana Jones who today may be the most famous "archaeologist" to most members of the public.

Google image search of Roy Chapman Andrews. Horseback and camel riding, hat wearing, gun toting, dinosaur finding, all around explorer extraordinaire. It's not hard to see how people have drawn the link between him and Indiana Jones, although the Smithsonian Channel apparently said any link is incidental.
The separation has come from the increasing detail and knowledge gained since the 1800s where someone could know everything about the entire field. Nowadays everyone has become increasingly specialised causing this subdivisions. But we can and do often learn a lot from each other, and the techniques we use are the same. An interesting example is in digging where very little has changed since those early days. Both archaeologists and palaeontologists today upon finding a site will carefully and painstakingly map and excavate the material, sometimes with tools as basic as dental picks and brushes. Archaeologists may take it a step further with just how rigorous they are with regards to recording sites, with often only a few centimetres being exposed and the site being remapped, and then continuing.

Archaeologists also seem to get a lot tougher deal with regards to a lot of excavation. I say this using an example, a dinosaur is relatively easy to remove from a site. You dig around your dinosaur, wrap it in a burlap plaster jacket, flip, jacket, and then remove. In fact, with the exception of giant trackways, I cannot think of palaeontological material that you cannot remove from a site provided you have permission and the site is not too remote. At many archaeological sites you can remove the small material, but the finds may include far bigger things that you cannot dig out - buildings/foundations/walls/postholes for example. These foundations tend to be exposed, mapped, and in many cases reburied, or built over. In a lot of cities, large building works have associated rescue archaeologists on site to map, record, and save what can be, but ultimately a lot of old buildings will be either re-buried or destroyed during the construction. A great example in the UK is the Crossrail expansion to the railway network in London and nearby regions who have been doing a lot of rescue work and have an interactive website. Some sites are protected, and some have human remains so have a very different level of archaeological work going into them but ultimately it's a balance between the science and the development in many instances.

So the cliff notes version of the above: Archaeologists - humans, palaeontologists - other old life. Overlap with regards to digging up of things, early humans and other organisms found with early humans. Does it matter? Not hugely in reality, but ask an archaeologist about the dinosaurs they dig up, or a palaeontologist about that time you saw the pyramids and want to know more, be prepared for some disappointed scientists who probably roll their eyes and rattle off the answer anyway as they've been asked so many times before.

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