How to tell an archaeologist from a palaeontologist
By Mark Carnall, on 18 September 2012
This post is something of a PSA to address a pet peeve of mine, the general confusion in the media about the difference between scientists working in biology and archaeology. Here’s a recent example of ‘archaeologists’ puzzling over Paleocene mammal remains. Puzzle they may because they’re literally 50 million years out of their depth. I doubt this post will really change anything and archaeologists will be digging up dinosaurs in press releases and science articles for many years to come particularly seeing as others have already covered this annoying and lazy habit that journalists, presumably covering the science desk vacation period, can’t seem to shake.
So, as you might expect a joke to go, what is the difference between an archaeologist and palaeontologist?
Well, down here after the jump I’m happy to concede that the reason why there may be confusion is because the guilds of archaeologists, palaeontologists, palaeobiologists and zoologists never got together and agreed who does what. Partly because these guilds are fictitious and partly because at times archaeologists have to be zoologists and sometimes palaeontologists have to be archaeologists. If only there was a nice venn diagram to clear it up….
..there isn’t. Well not here anyway. So instead we’ll go for a discipline by discipline breakdown.
Anthropologists, very broadly, study all aspects of humanity, yes much the same as archaeologists. Social anthropologists study human culture and society with a tendency to restrict this study to recent and living cultures with reference to ancient cultures as studied by archaeologists. Bioanthropologists (or physical anthropologists) study the anatomy and evolution of humans and our ancestors using biology, anthropology, archaeology, zoology and palaeontology. Simple no?
Spotting an anthropologist in the field is quite tough. They look just like us! However if this ultra-authoratative study is to be believed it looks like they have a tendency to take their work home with them.
Archaeology is quite simply the study of human history and prehistory through the examination of sites and artifacts. The dictionary uses the word excavation but this is misleading as not all archaeologists sit in trenches and wonder over pottery fragments. Some archaeologists look at buildings and monuments and with today’s technology some archaeologists, trowel unused, study data on a computer screen captured from aerial photography and various scanning techniques. The key point about archaeology is that it is the study of human history which gives us a pretty good starting point if only there was a consensus on what a human is- see palaeoanthropology. Archaeologists who go diving to study sunken civilisations and ships and the like are marine archaeologists and archaeologists who study zoological remains at archaeological sites are zooarchaeologists.
Spotting the difference between archaeologists and palaeontologists in the field is tricky, both have the tendency to wear shorts, sandals with socks and a bumbag all year round. If you listen carefully you can tell the difference as archaeologists talk about the palaeolithic, mesolithic and use words like alabaster which are offensive to anyone with geological training.
Biology is the study of life across all the known Universes, so far our one and as luck would have it our galaxy has been the most fruitful but astrobiologists are keeping their eyes peeled. As you can see this is getting silly now but zoology, botany, bioantrhopology, zooarchaeology, ecology and palaeontology are all branches of biology. They all use the same skill sets, techniques and fundamental principles but applied to different groups of organisms or their interactions within an ecosystem.
Biologists are far easier to identify by their specific discipline (see below).
Botany is the biological study of ‘plant life’ which sounds fairly straight forward but it is also has many sub branches. Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between plants and humans. Palynology is the study of pollen and spores (and other small things in the air…). Traditionally, and this is still reflected in the structure of universities and museums. botany also includes the study of algae and fungi even though neither of those are plants. Except algae which sometimes are. The study of ‘fossil’ plants is palaeobotany.
Botanists are easy to detect if you take them to the fresh produce aisle of a supermarket. They can’t resist referring to the produce by the scientific names.
Palaeoanthropology is the study of the evolution of humans and really ancient human cultures. In practice this includes the study of all fossil primates and is part anthropology, palaeobiology, archaeology and zoology.
Palaeoanthropologists are the ones who suspiciously only find men in the fossil record- Hobbit man, Peking man, Upright man, Java man etc.
Palaeobiology is somewhat confusingly a combination of palaeontology and biology and is synonymous with geobiology and actuopalaeontology. Supposedly, palaeobiology is a synthesis of palaeontological and biological research but this distinction implies that palaeontologists work in complete ignorance of the biology of modern organisms and that biologists work in ignorance of the fossil record. Which is only partially true.
Palaeontology is the study of dinosaurs* most normally through the study of fossils but much like archaeology palaeontology doesn’t necessarily mean standing in a trench with a mattock. In some parts of the world fossil hunting requires picking up fossils from the ground, out of tar pits or by defrosting large chunks of ice. Palaeontologists not only have to be biologists but they also need to be geologists to get the most from the rock record.
In society palaeontologists are easy to detect if you shout phrases like “I think Jurassic Park could happen” and “My favourite dinosaur is a pterodactyl” and see who turns purple.
Zoology is the biological study of animals but any zoologist worth their salt wouldn’t ignore the entirety of the fossil record so most are also aware of palaeontology. Also animals can’t be examined in isolation so geology, ecology and botany are also neccessary when studying living animals and their environment. Like botany, zoology has many sub branches for scientist who work on different groups; entomologists work on insects (and other invertebrates), malacologists study molluscs and gibbonologists study gibbons.
A zoologist can be spotted in society by their witty animal t-shirts and will probably be carrying nets and a pair of binoculars.
So you see, it isn’t all that confusing at all!
* and the other three people who work on brachiopods, gastropod molluscs and dinosaur footprints.