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7.1: Fossil Study - A Evolving Process

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    Mary Anning and the Age of Wonder

    Woman points to dog and fossil on the ground.
    Figure 7.1: An oil painting of Mary Anning and her dog, Tray, prior to 1845. The “Jurassic Coast” of Lyme Regis is in the background. Notice that Anning is pointing at a fossil. Credit: Mary Anning by B. J. Donne from the Geological Society/NHMPL is in the public domain.

    Mary Anning (1799–1847) is likely the most famous fossil hunter you’ve never heard of (Figure 7.1). Anning lived her entire life in Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast in England. As a woman, born to a poor family, with minimal education (even by 19th-century standards), the odds were against Anning becoming a scientist (Emling 2009, xii). It was remarkable that Anning was eventually able to influence the great scientists of the day with her fossil discoveries and her subsequent hypotheses regarding evolution.

    The time when Anning lived was a remarkable period in human history because of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Moreover, the scientific discoveries of the 18th and 19th centuries set the stage for great leaps of knowledge and understanding about humans and the natural world. Barely a century earlier, Sir Isaac Newton had developed his theories on physics and become the president of the Royal Society of London (Dolnick 2011, 5). In this framework, the pursuit of intellectual and scientific discovery became a popular avocation for many individuals, the vast majority of whom were wealthy men (Figure 7.2).

    Robed figure near a rock structure.
    Figure 7.2: A Walk at Dusk, 1830–1835, by Caspar David Friedrich, is a painting likely of a dolmen, a megalithic (large rock) tomb. Dolmens were built throughout Europe, five to six thousand years ago. Scholars were fascinated by the ancient world, which was an accepted part of Earth’s history, even if explanation defied nonsecular thought. Credit: A Walk at Dusk object 93.PA.14 by Casper David Friedrich German, 1774–1840, Paul Getty Museum, is in the public domain and part of the Getty Open Content Program.

    In spite of the expectations of Georgian English society to the contrary, Anning became a highly successful fossil hunter as well as a self-educated geologist and anatomist. The geology of Lyme Regis, with its limestone cliffs, provided a fortuitous backdrop for Anning’s lifework. Now called the “Jurassic Coast,” Lyme Regis has always been a rich source for fossilized remains (Figure 7.3). Continuing her father’s passion for fossil hunting, Anning scoured the crumbling cliffs after storms for fossilized remains and shells. The work was physically demanding and downright dangerous. In 1833, while searching for fossils, Anning lost her beloved dog in a landslide and nearly lost her own life in the process (Emling 2009).

    Rocky coastline and cliffs.
    Figure 7.3: The “Jurassic Coast” of Lyme Regis: the home of fossil hunter Mary Anning. Credit: Lyme-regis-coast-sea-cliffs-924431 by jstarj has been designated to the public domain (CC0) under a Pixabay License.

    Around the age of ten, Anning located and excavated a complete fossilized skeleton of an ichthyosaurus (“fish lizard”). She eventually found Pterodactylus macronyx and a 2.7-meter Plesiosaurus, considered by many to be her greatest discovery (Figure 7.4). These discoveries proved that there had been significant changes in the way living things appeared throughout the history of the world. Like many of her peers, including Darwin, Anning had strong religious convictions. However, the evidence that was being found in the fossil record was contradictory to the Genesis story in the Bible. In The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World, Anning’s biographer Shelley Emling (2009, 38) notes, “the puzzling attributes of Mary’s fossil [ichthyosaurus] struck a blow at this belief and eventually helped pave the way for a real understanding of life before the age of humans.”

    Plesiosaurus drawing.
    Figure 7.4: Plesiosaurus, illustrated and described by Mary Anning in an undated handwritten letter. Credit: Autograph letter concerning the discovery of plesiosaurus by Mary Anning (1799–1847) from the Wellcome Collection is under a CC BY 4.0 License.

    Intellectual and scientific debate now had physical evidence to support the theory of evolution, which would eventually result in Darwin’s seminal work, On the Origin of Species (1859). Anning’s discoveries and theories were appreciated and advocated by her friends, intellectual men who were associated with the Geological Society of London. Regrettably, this organization was closed to women, and Anning received little official recognition for her contributions to the fields of natural history and paleontology. It is clear that Anning’s knowledge, diligence, and uncanny luck in finding magnificent specimens of fossils earned her unshakeable credibility and made her a peer to many antiquarians (Emling 2009).

    Fossil hunting is still providing evidence and a narrative of the story of Earth. Mary Anning recognized the value of fossils in understanding natural history and relentlessly championed her theories to the brightest minds of her day. Anning’s ability to creatively think “outside the box”—skillfully assimilating knowledge from multiple academic fields—was her gift to our present understanding of the fossil record. Given how profoundly Anning has shaped how we, in the modern day, think about the origins of life, it is surprising that her contributions have been so marginalized. Anning’s name should be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Fortunately, at least in one sense of the word, it is. The well-known tongue twister, below, may have been written about Mary Anning:

    She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore.

    The shells she sells are sea-shells, I’m sure.

    For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore

    Then I’m sure she sells sea-shore shells.

    —T. Sullivan (1908)

    Developing Modern Methods

    As Mary Anning’s story suggests, scientists in Europe were working at a time dominated by western Christian tradition. Literal interpretations of the bible did not allow for the long, slow processes of geological or evolutionary change to operate. However, many scientists were making observations that did not fit the biblical narrative. During the 18th century, Scotsman James Hutton’s work on the formation of Earth provided a much longer timeline of events than previous biblical interpretations would allow. Hutton’s theory of Deep Time was crucial to the understanding of fossils. Deep Time gave the history of Earth enough time—4.543 billion years—to encompass continental drift, the evolution of species, and the fossilization process. A second Scotsman, Charles Lyell, propelled Hutton’s work into his own theory of uniformitarianism, the doctrine that Earth’s geologic formations are the work of slow geologic forces. Lyell’s three-volume work, Principles of Geology (1830–1833), was influential to naturalist Charles Darwin (see Chapter 2 for more information on Darwin’s work). In fact, Lyell’s first volume accompanied Darwin on his five-year voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle (1831–1836). The concepts proposed by Lyell gave Darwin an opportunity to apply his working theories of evolution by natural selection and a greater length of time with which to work. These resulting theories were important scientific discoveries and paved the way for the “Age of Wonder” (Holmes 2010, xvi).

    Fossilized shell.
    Figure 7.5: Murexsul (Miocene): This fossil was found at the Naval Weapons Center, China Lake, California, in 1945. The fossil was buried deep in the strata and was pulled out of the ground along with a crashed “Fat Boy” missile after atomic missile testing (S. Brubaker, personal communication, March 9, 2018). Credit: Murexsul (Figure 7.6) from the Maturango Museum, Ridgecrest, California, by Sarah S. King and Lee Anne Zajicek is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    The work of Anning, Darwin, Lyell, and many others laid the foundation for the modern methods we use today. Though anthropology is focused on humans and our primate relatives (and not on dinosaurs, as many people wrongly assume), you will see that methods developed in paleontology, geology, chemistry, biology, and physics are often applied in anthropological research. In this chapter, you will learn about the primary methods and techniques employed by biological anthropologists to answer questions about fossils, the mineralized copies of once-living organisms (Figure 7.5). Ultimately, these answers provide insights into human evolution. Pay close attention to ways in which modern biological anthropologists use other disciplines to analyze evidence and reconstruct past activities and environments.

    This page titled 7.1: Fossil Study - A Evolving Process is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Karin Enstam Jaffe & Kara Jones (Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.