What is a …

I would like to answer a frequent question I hear while volunteering at the natural history museum. That question is “what is a paleontologist?” I will also throw in archeologist and anthropologist for good measure.

To answer the first question, a paleontologist is a person who studies the history of life on Earth. They are the people that dig up dinosaur fossils and other amazing plants and animals that once lived on our planet. The excavation and curation of the fossils they discover is what gives us our understanding of Earth’s past. There are several subfields of paleontology, which include paleobotany (plant fossils), invertebrate paleontology, and vertebrate paleontology. All of those can also be broken down into more fields.

So what is an archeologist?

An archeologist is a person that studies human prehistory. Archeologists are the people that dig up human remains, artifacts, and animals once preyed upon by humans. Since most of human history happened before anything was written down, archeology is our only look into the vast majority of our history on Earth. There are several subfields of this as well, such as bio-archeology (human remains), zoo-archeology (animal remains), lithic analysis, ceramic analysis. From there the fields are usually broken up into the area of the world you study and the time period you are investigating.

So what is an anthropologist?

An anthropologist is a person that studies primates, everything from lemurs to humans. In fact, in the U.S. archeology is considered a subfield of anthropology (most European countries place archeology into history). The other subfields are biological anthropology (anatomy of mainly humans), ethnology (or cultural anthropology), and human evolutionary ecology.

Now, there is some overlap in all three, but major distinctions between the three as well. for example if you found something you thought might be a fossil, you probably would not want to ask your local archeologist what it is, on that same note, if you discovered a arrowhead, a paleontologist would not know much more than you already know.

However, an example of the overlap is the subfield of anthropology I someday hope to become a part of. That subfield is called paleoanthropology and that is the field that studies the hominins and other ancient primate species. This subfield deals with primates (thus anthropology), which are very old and mostly extinct (thus paleontology) and some of the specimens can be classified as human and were creating lithics (thus archeology).

I hope this short overview of these three scientific fields was helpful and may have cleared up any questions you might have had. If anyone has any questions about any of the three fields, please ask away. I will be more than happy to address any questions.

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