By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today we’re digging up the word ‘fossil’.
The word ‘fossil’ comes from a Proto-Indo-European root that means “to dig or pierce”, and makes its way to English through a 16th c. French word derived from the Latin verb fodio “to dig”. The word ‘fossil’ originally referred to a rock or mineral dug out of the ground, and appears in English at the beginning of the 17th century. The expression ‘fossil fuel’ preserves this older sense (no, it’s not because it’s made out of dinosaurs!). It was not until the 18th c., or a little earlier for the adjective form, that fossil gained its more restricted, but now most common, sense of ‘the petrified remains of ancient living organisms’. And these two different but related senses tell us something about the scientific investigations of the 18th and 19th centuries. But more on that in a minute.
Though the scientific study of fossils didn’t really kick off until the 18th century, people may have actually noticed them much earlier. Some scholars have argued that fossil remains of prehistoric megafauna may have inspired Greek myths about large monsters and heroes of giant stature. For instance, finding mammoth tusks in an area that hadn’t even heard about elephants yet may have led to stories of the gigantic Caledonian Boar; and the Greek historian Herodotus reports that the Delphic Oracle told the Spartans to find the bones of the hero Orestes, and when they dug up some huge bones near their border, they figured they’d found him and re-buried the ‘skeleton’ in a lavish tomb. According to one scholar, the Spartans’ success with Orestes kicked off a pan-Hellenic ‘bone rush’, with every city wanting its very own monster bones, much like the bone rush of the 19th century. But more on that later, too.
There are many Classical intrusions into this story; for instance, in the history of the complicated overlap between geology and palaeontology. One of the major debates in 18th and 19th century geology was between the Neptunists and the Plutonists. You see people noticed that rocks were arranged in layers, which came to be known as ‘strata’, from the Latin for ‘bed coverings’ or ‘paved road’, and also that fossils were contained in these strata; and most confusingly, there were fossils of sea creatures on mountaintops. So two schools of thought arose to explain this: Neptunists, named after the Roman god of the sea, said that the world was originally covered by a muddy ocean, and rocks were formed as the water receded or dried up, leaving layers of sediment; and since then, the earth had been basically unchanging. Plutonists, named after the Roman god of the underworld, pointed out that fossils weren’t found in all strata, and maintained that new rocks were formed by a continuing process of volcanoes (named after the Roman blacksmith god Vulcan) and earthquakes, though this left open the question of fossilised shells on mountain tops.
Meanwhile, the 18th century was also the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. Classical harmony and symmetry were the aesthetics of the day, and this way of thinking governed the sciences as well. The great taxonomist Carl Linnaeus set about classifying all living things, with the belief that God had created a perfect and unchanging order, and all humans had to do was categorize and name it; he developed the binomial naming system that we still use today, made up of two Latin names to identify the ‘genus’ (Latin for ‘clan or family’) and ‘species’ (Latin for ‘type or appearance’). But toward the end of that century and into the next, as the unruly passions of romanticism, which was really into the chaos of nature, began to challenge the neo-classical order, the ordered view of the natural world was about to shatter as well.
Continuing in Linnaeus’s task of classifying animals was Georges Cuvier, who practically wrote the book on comparative anatomy. It was said that he could reconstruct the shape of an entire animal from a single bone through the principle of the correlation of parts: the sharp tooth of a carnivore implied a particular jaw shape, which implied a particular skull shape, and so forth. This was demonstrated when American President Thomas Jefferson, a fossil fanatic, started a campaign of sending over to Europe specimens of animals of unusual size to counter French naturalist the Comte de Buffon who claimed American animals were small and degenerate compared to European ones, and in doing so inadvertently kicked off American palaeontology. Cuvier, starting with a single tooth that the Americans had sent, was the first to formally describe and name the American mastodon—and I bet you didn’t expect that word to mean “nipple tooth” from the Greek for “breast” and “tooth”, because of the titillating shape of the teeth! They were initially confused with mammoths until Cuvier’s work established them as a distinct but related species. The name ‘mammoth’, by the way, comes through Russian, ultimately from a Finno-Ugric root meaning “earth-horn” because, mammoth remains having been found in the ground, they were believed to have been a burrowing animal like a mole. And as a side note about Thomas Jefferson, the word ‘mammoth’ was first used as an adjective meaning “huge” to describe not an animal of unusual size, but a cheese wheel of unusual size that was presented to that President. But getting back to Cuvier, he also studied the strata and noticed that certain fossils were only found in certain layers and then disappeared, and this led him to be one of the first to really suggest the idea of extinction. He proposed the idea of catastrophism, which fit in with the neptunism of the geologists: that there were a series of floods that periodically caused certain species to go extinct, which were then, somehow, replaced by new ones.
Cuvier’s findings in France fit with those of an Englishman, William Smith, who is so important to the study of strata that he is sometimes credited with coining the term ‘stratigraphy’ (the first recorded instance of the word refers to his work) and was nicknamed William ‘Strata’ Smith. Smith was a surveyor working for a coal company and realised he could work out the relative ages of strata by the type of fossils they contained, and after much study produced a geological map of Britain showing all the different strata, a map which was sadly immediately plagiarised.
Another proponent of the flood theory was an eccentric theologian cum geologist and palaeontologist William Buckland, who is also significant as the first to formally describe a dinosaur, which he called megalosaurus, from its fossil remains. The name megalosaurus is from Greek meaning “big lizard”, and perhaps unfortunately replaced the Latin name originally given to the fossilized end of a femur which was the first of its bones to be found: “scrotum humanum” because of its resemblance to... well.... As for the eccentric Buckland himself, he preferred to do his field work while wearing his academic robes, and having pioneered the study of coprolites, fossilized faeces, he had a table made with inlaid specimens—and only told his guests what it was made out of after they’d eaten off it. He also had odd tastes in food, being obsessed with trying many unusual animals, such as sea slugs, crocodile, and bluebottle flies, and was apparently fond of toasted mice. He was also rumoured to have eaten the mummified heart of Louis XIV, and he was purported to have properly identified a dark stain on the floor of a cathedral, which was thought to be the blood of a martyr, as actually bat urine--by tasting it! But all of this eccentricity didn’t go to waste, as he was known for using humour and buffoonery in his lectures at Oxford University to keep his students interested and entertained. Shocking! And Buckland is particularly important to this story because of one of those students: Charles Lyell.
Lyell, disagreeing with his wacky teacher Buckland and the other neptunists and catastrophists, instead turned to the work of a man who died the year Lyell was born. This farmer-turned-geologist, the Scotsman James Hutton, who held to the plutonist school, proposed the theory of uniformitarianism, that the gradual and ongoing processes of erosion and sedimentation, along with ongoing vulcanism, could account for the geological evidence, and that these processes must have been happening in the same way for a very long time, with no need for the great catastrophes of floods. He even applied this gradualistic notion to living things, with a kind of proto-theory of evolution through natural selection. But unfortunately Hutton was such a bad writer that his ideas came close to going completely unnoticed. Hutton was part of the so-called Scottish Enlightenment, and as such palled around with other Scottish notables of the day, and along with moral philosopher Adam Smith and chemist Joseph Black formed a dining club called the Oyster Club, soon to be joined by mathematician John Playfair. Playfair, realising that Hutton’s writings needed to be reworked, wrote a summary explaining Hutton’s uniformitarianism, and it’s through this that Lyell got onto the idea. Lyell wrote his own book promoting and popularising the idea, also providing the additional evidence of fossils in strata that ran under volcanic mountains, which demonstrated the extreme age and slow pace of everything, and this book made a big impact on Lyell’s friend, Charles Darwin, who went on to formulate his own idea of evolution through natural selection, seemingly unaware of Hutton’s earlier musings.
So Darwin’s theory only further inflamed the bone rush going on amongst the fossil hunters, for further proof of evolution and extinction, and the search for the so-called missing links between one species and another–such as proof of the theory that birds were descended from dinosaurs. American bone-hunter Othniel Charles Marsh supported that theory with his study of the first fossil specimen of a toothed bird Ichthyornis (from the Greek meaning “fish bird”). Marsh himself hadn’t uncovered the fossil, which was actually found by geologist Benjamin Franklin Mudge, who sent the fossil to Marsh for scientific classification. Mudge had originally had an arrangement to send fossil finds to Edward Drinker Cope, Marsh’s hated rival in what has become known as the Bone Wars, but Marsh convinced Mudge to send the Ichthyornis fossil his way, so Marsh beat Cope out as the classifier of this crucial fossil. The Bone Wars was the intense and often underhanded professional and personal competition between Marsh and Cope, two of the most important palaeontologists of the 19th century. Not only did they attack each other in print, but they poached each other’s quarries, descending to bribery, theft, and even dynamiting fossils to keep them from falling into the other’s hands, and at the end of it all both were left broken and financially ruined men. Though often destructive, their competition to discover the most species led to the classification of some of the most iconic dinosaurs: Triceratops, Allosaurus, Diplodocus, and Stegosaurus. Sometimes their haste to one up each other led to mistakes like misidentifying as new animals fossils of species that had already been discovered, as in the famous case of the Brontosaurus. Marsh had discovered and named the Brontosaurus (from the Greek meaning “thunder-lizard”), but it was later decided that the fossil find was really a specimen of the previously discovered Apatosaurus, so officially the name Brontosaurus was dropped, except in the popular imagination where it persisted as one of the most famous dinosaur species. But recently, in early 2015, a re-examination of the fossil has shown that there actually were enough differences to classify Brontosaurus as a separate species again. I’m sure Marsh would have been just as pleased as the 8-year old dinosaur lover in all of us!
Of course fossil evidence for the evolution of humans from earlier primates was also sought and found too, including such species as the Java Man (now classified as Homo erectus from Latin meaning “upright person”) and Neanderthal (so called because it was first discovered in the Neander valley near Düsseldorf). And the principles of stratigraphy became a central precept of the study of the physical remains of human activity, such as artifacts or structures--in other words archaeology. One interesting recent archaeological discovery is the oldest known remains of a bed, made by early humans in the Sibudu cave in what is now South Africa some 77,000 years ago. This ‘mattress’ was made out of layers of sedges which have insecticidal properties to keep the pests away, with a layer of leaves on top, and was big enough for a whole family to sleep on, giving us clues to the social arrangements and behaviours of early humans. What’s more, it appears to have been used over a period of 39,000 years, being periodically burned and then re-layered with fresh sedges and leaves, so the bed itself is made up of strata (or “bed coverings” in Latin, remember) of fossilized plants accumulated over thousands of years. Which is particularly appropriate, since the word “bed” comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root that gives us fossil, only through the Germanic branch of languages instead of Latin. It’s a matter of some speculation why a word that meant ‘to dig’ came to mean a place for sleeping, but perhaps it had to do with the notion of a hollow dug out of the ground, like a den, giving us a linguistic clue to sleeping arrangements of the past. In Old English, the word “bed” could refer to a place to sleep, as well as a garden bed, where you might dig. And by the beginning of the 17th century, the word bed could refer to a layer or stratum, like a geological bed, a lake bed, or a bone bed, containing fossils.
So this video is a bit like uncovering the strata of history and etymology, and like Cuvier puzzling out the shape of an entire organism starting from one small bone, we’ve puzzled out this whole story from one word’s history. And like the fossil mattress, the etymology of “bed” gives us a glimpse of the deep and distant past. Can you dig it?
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