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What Is the Difference Between an Archaeologist & a Paleontologist?

Archaeologists and paleontologists both seek and preserve pieces of the historical world. The main difference is the type of specimens. Archaeologists look for artifacts made by humans while paleontologists study prehistoric environments.

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Comparing Archaeologists to Paleontologists

Both archaeologists and paleontologists study the past. Archaeologists are mainly focused on ancient human civilizations while paleontologists work with earth history that predates human history. Paleontologists collect fossils and archaeologists often collect pottery fragments and other related artifacts.

Job Title Minimum Education Required Median Salary* Job Growth (2014-2024)*
Archaeologist Master's degree $63,190 +4%
Paleontologist Bachelor's degree $89,780 +10%

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Responsibilities of an Archaeologist vs. a Paleontologist

Professionals in both these fields use tools to locate and excavate samples from remote locations. However, the source of preserved ancient materials differs. An archaeologist is interested in human cultures and how they lived in past environments. They research the tools and culture developed by ancient civilizations. A paleontologist studies the evolution of plant and animal species during Earth's history. Both professions use specialized tools for gathering and preserving specimens.

Archaeologist

Many archaeologists are employed in the United States to evaluate sites before a contractor can begin construction on a new building. They may also work in locations around the world and often specialize in a particular era of civilization. Archaeologists supervise the collection and preservation of artifacts which often means an extended stay at a remote location. Many museums and historic sites employ archaeologists to protect or recreate the domestic life of an ancient civilization for public education.

Job responsibilities of an archaeologist include:

  • Researching sites for excavation based upon the possibility of previous human occupation
  • Determining the authenticity of collected artifacts
  • Recording and mapping all structures discovered within an excavation site
  • Communicating research findings at scientific meetings

Paleontologist

To locate areas for fossil exploration, paleontologists use maps of continental movements throughout Earth's history. They look for specific rock formations that can preserve dead plants and animals and then travel to those places to excavate sites. Many paleontologists work at universities or museums where their fossil collections are stored. By reconstructing past plant and animal ecosystems research by paleontologists helps us to understand changes in Earth's climate.

Job responsibilities of a paleontologist include:

  • Using computer software to model the movement of Earth's crustal plates
  • Utilizing remote sensing technologies to analyze vegetation at current sites
  • Extracting fossils from surrounding rock formations
  • Analyzing plant and animal characteristics in fossils to determine age and species

Related Careers

An archaeologist is similar to a museum curator because they both preserve artifacts from past cultures. A petroleum engineer is similar to a paleontologist because both require knowledge of past environments and the ability to predict where to find deposits of dead plants and animals. In the case of a petroleum engineer, those deposits are oil and gas.

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