Paleoanthropology is the study of early forms of humans and their primate ancestors. It is similar to paleontology except its focus is documenting and understanding human biological and cultural evolution. Paleoanthropologists do not look for dinosaurs and other early creatures. However, like paleontology, the data for paleoanthropology is found mainly in the fossil record. Before examining this evidence, it is necessary to first learn what fossils are and how they are formed. In addition, it is important to know how paleoanthropologists date fossils and other evidence of the prehistoric past.
The Nature of Fossils
In order to understand fossils, it is useful to learn how they formed. Taphonomy is the study of the conditions under which plants, animals, and other organisms become altered after death and sometimes preserved as fossils. Research into these matters has shown that fossilization is a rare phenomenon. In order for a fossil to form, the body must not be eaten or destroyed by erosion and other natural forces. Preservation would most likely occur if the organism were buried quickly and deeply. In most environments, soft body parts, such as skin, muscle, fat, and internal organs, deteriorate rapidly and leave no trace. Only very rarely do we find the casts of such tissues. Similarly, the totally soft-bodied creatures, like jellyfish, are very uncommon fossils. Hard body parts, such as dense bones, teeth, and shells, are what most often are preserved. It is likely that the vast majority of fossils will never be found before they are destroyed by erosion. That coupled with the fact that extremely few living things are preserved long enough after death to become fossils makes the large collections of fossils in the museums of the world quite remarkable. It is a testament to the tenacious searching by fossil hunters over the last two centuries. ..