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Paleontologists argue about which living organisms were first. In exchange, we living organisms get to argue about who was the the first paleontologist. There are many potential answers: the Greek philosophers/natural scientists Xenophanes, Herodotus, & Eratosthenes all wrote about fossils and recognized that parts of the land were once under water. Likewise the Roman geographer Strabo theorized about volcanism, subduction, and, most importantly, deposition. Pliny labored to apprehend the relationships between living creatures (and how they related to vanished or mythological beasts). A Medieval Perisan Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in Europe) came up with a theory concerning the petrification of living things while the Chinese naturalist Shen Kuo recognized that climate and ecology changed over time (based on his studies of petrified bamboo).

However, to my eyes, the first paleontologist was an altogether more peculiar figure–a Baroque Danish polymath named Nicolas Steno who lived from 1638 to 1686. The son of a goldsmith, Steno moved through the scintillant aristocratic courts of Northern Europe in his era and thus knew Spinoza, de Graaf Ruysch, Lister, and Bourdelot (along with lots of aristocrats and churchmen who were probably all-important for securing patronage back then but about whom we are no longer obliged to care). As you can probably tell from the list of names I have given, Steno was dirst an anatomist, and it is through a strange quirk of dissection that he made a name for himself as a geology/paleontology pioneer.

In 1666 two Ligurian fishermen caught a colossal shark which they presented to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II de’ Medici, who had the presence of mind to order it sent to Steno for dissection. Steno dissected the shark’s head and discovered that its teeth were extremely similar to stony objects discovered within the earth (then known as “tongue stones” but now called “fossilized shark teeth”). These mysterious triangles were once thought to have been hidden by imps or to have fallen from the moon. Steno recognized they came from sharks (perhaps giant sharks killed by the Biblical flood ?) and he devised a hypothesis for how they further came to be inside of rocks. Steno devised a theory of stratigraphy (a discipline of which he is arguably the founder). His four principles of stratigraphy laid the bedrock (heh heh heh) for Lyell, Hutton, and Darwin to piece together an accurate record of events on Earth. These four principles are:

  1. the law of superposition (older layers lie beneath more recent layers…just like upon a cluttered desk)
  2. the principle of original horizontality: (thanks to gravity, layers are horizontal when deposited)
  3. the principle of lateral continuity: (layers within a basin extend in all directions according to the manner and order of their deposition and are contiguous)
  4. the principle of cross-cutting relationships: if a disconuity cuts through a layer, it must be more recent than the strata

These principles seem childishly obvious to anyone who has ever made a sand sculpture–and they are in fact beautifully brilliantly obvious. Yet nobody had stated them together in the context of natural history or applied them properly to the stones beneath us. Indeed it would take another hundred years for scientific consensus to grasp their astonishing power and scope.

Sadly, Steno became interested in theological conundrums (and in the worldly power of the church). He converted to Catholicism and was ordained a priest. Soon he became involved in the counter reformation (where he found a new role arguing with Leibniz and censoring Spinoza). Thanks to his self-abnegating piety and devotion he was even raised to the rank of auxiliary bishop. His story becomes filled with weird hagiographic details like how he sold the bishop’s ring and cross to help the poor and how he ate so little that he, um died.

Steno was not unique among geology pioneers in being a churchman. However he is unique in that he has been beatified (Pope John Paul beatified him in 1988). According to the tenants of Catholicism, if you pray to Nicolas Steno he can intercede upon your behalf in heaven! However I recommend that you do not pay attention to such holy claptrap, but instead keep looking at interesting rocks and cool fish. That is where the real beatification occurs.


Happy Birthday to Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847).  Mary’s life was a difficult one.  Her father was a poor cabinet-maker in Lyme Regis (a coastal town in Dorset, England) who supplemented his income by selling strange petrified shells and stone bullets which he pried out of a nearby sea cliff.  Mary’s parents had ten children, but only Mary and her brother survived past early childhood.  Her name was a hand-me-down from an older sister who had burned to death at the age of four.  When Mary was 15 months old, she and three neighbors were under a tree when it was struck by lightning and only Mary survived.  Her father died while Mary and her brother were young and they kept the family afloat by selling curiosities pried from the sea cliffs.  This was dangerous business: Mary’s beloved terrier Tray was crushed in a rockslide (he’s up there sleeping with the ammonites in the painting) and Mary narrowly avoided this fate herself on multiple occasions.  Additionally, living so close to the sea carried further perils: the family nearly drowned from a flood during a great storm.  Mary Anning died of breast cancer at the age of 47.  Her final years were marked by agonizing pain from the condition which she self-treated with laudanum (which caused the community to gossip about her morals).

This is a pretty bleak biography (although in no way atypical for a working-class woman from early industrial Great Britain).  So why are we writing about Mary 172 years after her death anyway? Mary Anning was a great pioneer of paleontology, geology, ichthyology, ecology, and invertebrate zoology.  The luminaries of the English geology community relied on her indomitable fieldwork to frame their conclusions about the history of living things and to stock their museums with specimens. Mary was a religious dissenter and the daughter of a cabinet-maker in an age when geology was the near-exclusive preserve of well-to-do Anglican gentlefolk (the Geological Society of London did not even allow women to attend meetings as guests).  Yet she kept informed of the scientific literature of her day and she dissected fish and invertebrates as to better understand the nature of her excavations and discoveries. Above all, Mary Anning actually discovered the fossils which others wrote about–so she had insights and knowledge which were occluded from armchair scholars. Charles Lyell (the father of geology) wrote to her asking her opinions about cliff erosion.  Mary proposed a theory to William Buckland that some of the fossils she discovered were ingested by ichthyosaurs and the remains excreted (a concept which fascinated Buckland and became the central focus of his work). In a fair world she would have an alphabet of letters after her name and be immortalized as a statue on a plinth beside the statues of Darwin and Lyell.  Even in our fallen world, she is revered as one of the founders of the natural history and life science disciplines (although many biographies about her concentrate on the sad exigencies of her life rather than on the extraordinary discoveries she made, a tradition which I have somewhat followed).

The cliffs which Mary relied on for specimens were part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias. These layers of limestone and shale were a shallow seabed of the Tethys Ocean during the Jurassic period (about 210–195 million years ago).  The curlicues and stone bullets were fossil ammonites and belemnites, but Mary had a knack for finding the much rarer remains of hitherto unknown creatures such as ichthyosaurs, pterosaurs, plesiosaurs and other ancient marine fauna.

In the early 19th century a debate was raging between learned churchmen who knew for certain that God’s perfect creation could never be diminished and gentlemen geologists who believed that there had once been animals which were gone from earth…”extinct” as they called this new concept.   Mary’s fossils of bizarre giant sea crocodiles and lizard dolphins gave concrete evidence to the ur-paleontologists (who were indeed proven right).  Her discoveries were seminal for the discovery of paleontology itself and paved the way to the understanding that the world’s ecosystems were once very different indeed from what they are like now.   These pieces of knowledge helped towards an understanding of the true age of the Earth and ultimately made Darwin’s discoveries possible.


Here is another painting of Mary, by the greatest living fish-artist, Ray Troll.  Troll shows Mary with fleshed-out versions of the creatures she discovered (note the ichthyosaur swallowing an ammonite).  We owe an enormous debt to Mary Anning.  Her contributions were under-appreciated in her day (when only the most learned gentleman scientists…and Mary… had inklings of the real nature of natural history and what her super sea-monsters connoted ), but those discoveries undergird our understanding the nature of the planet and of life itself.


Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

January 2021