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Archaeology or Paleontology

Many people use the words archaeology and paleontology interchangeably, and although both are disciplines of scientific study, they are vastly different in their focus. You would quickly discover this difference if you were to ask an archaeologist how big T-rex really was, or a paleontologist why a pot shard is important. Confusingly both root words, arkhaios, and palaios have their origins in ancient Greek and mean ancient, or old, and equally are studies of history. However, from here, they diverge drastically. Archaeology focuses on either historic or prehistoric human cultures through the study of material goods or artifacts while paleontology informs on the history of all life as revealed through the study of fossils. An example of prehistoric research performed by an archaeologist would be excavations conducted in ancient cities around the world such as Egypt, Rome or South America, while a historical study might focus on the colonization of Jamestown, Virginia. Contrast that to a paleontological excavation where the paleontologist may be quarrying anything from a dinosaur or prehistoric mammal bones to invertebrate creatures that swam in the Earth’s oceans 400 million years ago. So if this still seems a bit confusing, let’s look to Hollywood to clarify the issue by considering two blockbuster movies; “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Jurassic Park.” If you remember the goal of each main character, archaeologist Dr. Indiana Jones in “Raiders” and paleontologist Dr. Allen Grant, from “Jurassic Park,” then the difference is clear. Our archaeologist, Dr. Jones, hunted a man-made artifact, the lost Ark of the Covenant, while the paleontologist Dr. Grant, was advising (and ultimately trying not to be eaten) on the dinosaurs. So an archaeologist seeks Arks, and a paleontologist loves “Parks.” Hmm, perhaps a bit of a stretch.

Many people use the words archaeology and paleontology interchangeably, but although both are disciplines of scientific study, they are vastly different in their focus. You would quickly discover this difference if you were to ask an archaeologist how big T-rex really was, or a paleontologist why a pot shard is important.

Confusingly, both root words, arkhaios, and palaios have their origins in ancient Greek, and both mean ancient or very old. Both sciences, too, are studies of the past, but from here, they diverge drastically. Archaeology focuses on either historic or prehistoric human cultures through the study of artifacts – objects made or utilized by people - while paleontology investigates the history of all life as revealed through the study of plant and animal fossils. Examples of research performed by an archaeologist would be excavations conducted in ancient sites around the world, such as in Egypt, Rome or South America, or a study of artifacts from the colonization of Jamestown, Virginia. Contrast that to a paleontological excavation, where the paleontologist may be quarrying anything from a dinosaur or prehistoric mammal bones to invertebrate creatures that swam in Earth’s oceans 400 million years ago.

For movie buffs, let’s look to Hollywood and compare two blockbuster movies: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, to further explain how these sciences differ from one another. Keep in mind the ultimate goal for each of the main characters, specifically, Indiana Jones from Raiders and Allen Grant of Jurassic Park. Jones, the archaeologist, hunts for the fabled Ark of the Covenant, while Grant, a paleontologist, has eyes only for the cloned dinosaurs that inhabit the island. So while both archaeologists and paleontologists love to dig up the past, what they desire to unearth are poles apart.