The history of paleontology
traces the history of the effort to study the fossil
record left behind by ancient life forms. Although fossils had been studied by scholars since ancient times, the nature of fossils and their relationship to life in the past became better understood during the 17th and 18th centuries. At the end of the 18th century the work of Georges Cuvier
ended a long running debate about the reality of extinction
and led to the emergence of paleontology
as a scientific discipline.
The first half of the 19th century saw paleontological activity become increasingly well organized. This contributed to a rapid increase in knowledge about the history of life on Earth, and progress towards definition of the geologic time scale. As knowledge of life's history continued to improve, it became increasingly obvious that there had been some kind of successive order to the development of life. After Charles Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, much of the focus of paleontology shifted to understanding evolutionary paths.
The last half of the 19th century saw a tremendous expansion in paleontological activity, especially in North America. The trend continued in the 20th century with additional regions of the Earth being opened to systematic fossil collection, as demonstrated by a series of important discoveries in China near the end of the 20th century. There was also a renewed interest in the Cambrian explosion that saw the development of the body plans of most animal phyla. (see more...)