How Dinosaurs Were Discovered

"Since the start of recorded history, humankind has found fossils and hypothesized as to what they were. We look at the history of paleontology."

Paleontology is the science whereby scientists try to understand the history of life on the earth. This is done by studying fossils that have been found, tied closely to other natural sciences such as geology.

Let’s look at a timeline for paleontology and how it evolved over time.

The Birth of Modern Paleontology & the Study of Dinosaurs

The Dawn of Humankind

Since the start of recorded history, humankind has found fossils and hypothesized as to what they were. 

In the 6th Century, Chinese philosophers hypothesized that large areas of land were once seas, as they found fossilized seashells. Of course, today, we know that this is right, but for the 6th Century, this was ground-breaking thought.

The Chinese thinker Shen Kuo recorded his thoughts on climate change by working with fossilized bamboo. His theory was very accurate as it predicted the gradual change in climate as the area where the fossil was found could not sustain bamboo growth in his day.

The Birth of Modern Paleontology & the Study of Dinosaurs

16th Century Collectors

In the 16th Century, natural thinkers began collecting and classifying fossils, and large informal networks grew as collectors collaborated on their collections and how they were organized.

Most of these 16th Century collectors did not see fossils as the remains of living organisms. Fossils were classified by their physical and often mystical properties rather than their origins.

Discussion and alternative theories on fossils were encouraged. There were several popular ideas, such as fossils grew in the earth to resemble living organisms, or there was some type of affinity between living and non-living things that meant they grew to resemble one another, or the seeds of living organisms entered the earth and grew into objects resembling the seed’s parent. 

Leonardo da Vinci undertook a lot of research into fossils and is considered one of the founding fathers of paleontology, with his work to differentiate between ichnology and body fossil paleontology and ichnology. 

Ichnology is the study of fossilized things that are not bodies. These would be footprints, burrows, scat, etc. Body fossils are the actual physical remains of organisms.  

The Birth of Modern Paleontology & the Study of Dinosaurs

17th Century Theories

Natural thinkers have developed different theories as we move into the 17th Century. In 1665, Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit priest, theorized that the huge bones found belonged to an extinct giant human race. Robert Hook published a work saying that petrified wood was ordinary wood that had been impregnated with water and earthy material. This is remarkably close to the truth!   

In 1667 Nicholas Steno, a Danish scientist, wrote an influential paper after dissecting the head of a shark and noting the similarities between the teeth of the shark with items found in rocks that his contemporaries called “tongue stones.” The popular theories stated that the “tongue stones” grew within the rocks, but Steno concluded that this was not true. Steno’s work expanded to include things such as crystals and rock strata. He concluded that fossils came from living organisms.

The Birth of Modern Paleontology & the Study of Dinosaurs

We are now close to the official start of the science of Paleontology  

In the 1700s, scientists began to classify fossils instead of treating them as decorative objects and map the many types of rocks. Early geologists discovered that rock was made up of many layers of sediment instead of one single event. This was important as it led to an understanding that rock layers in different locations could be scientifically compared based on the fossils found.

William Smith, a mining engineer, pioneered this work, using fossils to classify different strata throughout England. He wrote a book, Strata By Organized Fossils”. He surmised that each stratum of sedimentary rock would contain specific types of fossils and that they would predictably follow one another. 

The Birth of Modern Paleontology & the Study of Dinosaurs

The word Paleontology is born!

At the same time, Georges Cuvier undertook similar work around Paris. He published a paper on the fossilized bones of quadrupeds, having studied African and Indian elephants, mammoth, and mastodon bones. In 1821, Henri de Blainville, the editor of the scientific magazine, Journal de physique, coined the phrase “palæontologie.” A year later, Blaine’s word to describe the study of fossilized plants and animals was anglicized to become “paleontology,” which we still use today.

So now we have scientists studying fossils, and we have a scientific term for it, and we accept that these are the remains of living organisms.

The Birth of Modern Paleontology & the Study of Dinosaurs

So, where was the first dinosaur found?

As we have said since the first being stood on two legs and started looking around for things to use as tools, fossils, and large bones would have been found. Of course, there is no record of this, so perhaps the closest we can get is to ask who first described bones as belonging to a dinosaur and where the term dinosaur came from.

In 1819, William Buckland, a British fossil hunter, located several fossils, and in 1824 he formally described them, saying they belonged to an ancient relative of the modern reptile.

A British scientist, Richard Owen, is credited with creating the term “dinosaur” (terrible lizard) to describe the creatures to whom the fossilized bones belong. 

In the early 1840s, Owen studied the fossil collection belonging to William Saul. He focussed on a piece of a spine classified as belonging to a creature resembling the modern iguana. When Owen studied and compared the fossils, he concluded that they came from similar animals, and secondly, they resembled nothing that lived on the earth today.

When he arrived at these conclusions, he knew that the world needed a new term to describe these creatures, and the word dinosaur was born.

The Birth of Modern Paleontology & the Study of Dinosaurs

Bone Wars

In the 1800s, there were not many fossils to study, and finding new specimens was not an easy task. That is, until the start of the Bone Wars.

In 1842, two teams of American scientists led by Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh set out for the Rocky Mountains, which were acknowledged as an area rich in fossils. These two teams had a fierce rivalry and unearthed tons of bones, which eventually led to 136 new species being documented. 

The Birth of Modern Paleontology & the Study of Dinosaurs

Paleontology today

With all these specimens and more being discovered, scientists and researchers began the serious study of dinosaurs at the beginning of the 20th Century. 

Modern paleontologists have access to fantastic modern technologies that have pushed our knowledge of dinosaurs to unprecedented heights. Studying these fascinating creatures has occupied the brightest minds and will continue to do so well into the future.

Catheryn Buggs

Catheryn Buggs


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