Today, many of us are aware that fossils are the preserved remains - or, more specifically, traces of remains - of ancient animals, plants, and bacteria that died thousands to millions of years ago.
These remains were then absorbed or turned into rocks by being buried underwater or under the ground. However, back in the 17th and 18th centuries, early geologists and anthropologists were still trying to determine what fossils were precisely and if they were real at all.
Fossils were thought of as remains of ancient organisms, old animal or human bones (the bigger ones from a giant race of humans), or shapes that naturally formed due to the growth of salt crystals over time.
Eventually, the scientific community gained a deeper understanding of fossils through various advances in the scientific process and the advent of newer scientific tools and technology. Many of them accepted that fossils are the traces or remains of animals and other organisms that died long ago.
However, none of these early scientists could probably even imagine how we use fossils today! We use them to discover more about ourselves as human beings and the history of our planet.
We use them as tools to probe, examine and dive deep into Earth's multi-billion year history.
What are fossils showing us exactly and how much do they reveal of that particular time they originated form? And with each succeeding era, how did environment change? Just how old are fossils exactly? How far can one fossil go back to tell us about what the Earth was like back then? And most importantly, will it help us discover what the first complex life was on our planet? These are the questions the geologists of today ask of fossils.
It might sound like we expect so many answers from fossils, especially since there are so many of them around; they can't be all that special. But the reality is - they are! Fossilization is the process of animal or plant remains becoming or transforming into fossils, and it is extremely rare. Paleontologists believe that less than 0.1 percent of all living species that ever lived on the planet Earth throughout history have become fossils, and if ever, only a few of those fossils have ever been found.
Organisms rot and decompose as soon as they die. For fossilization to occur, the animal must have a hard exterior or body parts such as bones, teeth, shells, or in plants, wood tissue. These remains then must be buried quickly to halt decomposition.
So fossils are more than just a picture of our past. They are actual, physical objects preserved from that time, which, when studied, can tell us more about how we developed as a planet and possibly even give us clues to what lies ahead.