What Are Paleontology & Archaeology? - Definition, History & Facts

What Are Paleontology & Archaeology? - Definition, History & Facts
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  • 0:01 Can You Dig It?
  • 0:49 Paleontology
  • 2:21 Archaeology
  • 4:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

While they do have similarities, paleontology and archaeology are two fields with different goals. In this lesson, you'll learn about these unique sciences, as well as some of the sub-disciplines that fall under each.

Can You Dig It?

Have you ever dreamed of discovering a dinosaur bone? Or perhaps you'd like to be the one to unearth a rare artifact of a lost civilization. If so, you would make a good paleontologist or archaeologist. But while these two fields often work together, they are quite different.

Paleontology is the study of fossils, while archaeology is the study of human artifacts and remains. They sound similar, but fossils can be a variety of things: shells, tracks and other bodily imprints, bone, wood, and even pollen. Paleontologists uncover and study these fossils, attempting to understand what life was like on Earth long ago for all organisms. Archaeologists do this too but specifically for humans and their history.


Paleontologists study fossils, but the information they get from their discoveries goes far beyond the items they dig up. The fossils buried in Earth's crust tell a story about our planet's past. We can learn about Earth's history ecologically, evolutionarily, and more. In order to do this, paleontology pulls from many other natural science disciplines, like biology, chemistry, and geology.

Paleontologists are involved in reconstructing Earth's climate history, which tells us a lot about what types of climates we can expect in the future. They are also involved in collecting natural resources, like coal, oil, and natural gas. Not only are these fossils in their own right, but they are also buried deep underground so finding them requires some knowledge of the rocks and minerals that keep them hidden - perfect for a paleontologist!

By now, you should be able to see that paleontology is a complex field of study. Because of this, there are many different sub-disciplines that branch out into more specific fields. For example, paleobotonists study plant fossils, and micropaleontologists study microscopic fossils.

There are even invertebrate paleontologists who study invertebrate animal fossils, like ancient sea stars and snails, as well as vertebrate paleontologists who study vertebrate animal fossils, like birds, mammals, and fish. So, while paleontology is described as the study of fossils, clearly this means much more than just digging up bones!


Now, if you want to study human artifacts, archaeology is definitely the field for you. Archaeologists are like paleontologists in that they piece together the past, but these scientists focus on human history by examining artifacts. Human artifacts are anything made and left behind by humans. An artifact could be a simple eating tool, or it could be a complex hunting weapon. Artifacts aren't all old, either. If you moved out of your house and left everything behind for someone else to discover, all of those items would be artifacts.

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