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What are Fossils?

Fossils are the preserved remains or traces of plants or animals. The conditions needed to preserve fossils occur very rarely in nature, so the fossil record is only a tiny fraction of the history of all living organisms.

The word fossil comes from a Latin word meaning "to dig up." Fossils have not always been recognized as the remains of once living organisms. Not understanding mountain building or plate tectonics, early civilizations have struggled with the mystery of sea shells stranded on mountain tops and in barren deserts.

Trace fossils, orichnofossils, include such things as footprints and trails. Burrows or borings made by animals such as worms, trilobites, and bivalves can also be preserved if they are filled with sediment and hardened into rock.

In 450 B.C. Herodotus, a Greek historian, realized that an ocean had at one time covered what was then an Egyptian desert. A change in sea level had exposed the graveyard of ancient sea creatures. But could the ocean have been so deep as to have left shells sitting on a mountain peak?

One hundred years later a student of Aristotle named Theoprastus thought that the fossils had originated from eggs or seeds that had been "planted" in the mountain rocks. Almost 2,000 years ago, Strabo speculated that it was the "rocks' themselves that had risen...carrying the bodies of aquatic animals with them.

The Dark Ages
During the Dark Ages, fossils were explained as tricks of the devil to fool man' of imperfections, discarded by God during the Creation. Strict Biblical interpretation allowed that the bones of animals found in the ground were mute testimony to the devastation of the Great Flood. Leonard da Vinci (1452-1519) realized that fossils were indeed the remains of once living animals.

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