Studying the Past: Archaeology and Paleontology

The Difference Between Archaeology and Paleontology

Paleontology and archaeology both study the past, but their areas of focus differ. While archaeologists study historic and prehistoric human cultures, paleontologists delve into the history of all life through fossils.

Paleontologists investigate fossils of living things, such as bones, shells, waste, imprints and tracks. These materials help reconstruct the history of organisms and their evolution.


The portable items that archaeologists study are called artifacts. They can include tools, pottery, bones, decorations, buttons, jewelry and written materials. Non-portable items, such as ditches, pits, post holes and caves are known as features. Archaeologists can also find clues about past environments by studying soil samples and examining skeletons.

Because ancient people didn’t leave behind written records, archaeologists rely on artifacts and features to learn about how people lived in the past. They study everything from tools to fire pits, garbage dumps to shards of pottery. They may focus on certain civilizations, such as Assyriology (Mesopotamia), Indology (India), Classical archaeology (Greece and Rome) or Etruscology (Etruscan) to learn about specific cultures.

The work of archaeologists requires broad knowledge of biology, geology and history to solve mysteries uncovered during excavations. A knowledge of chemistry is useful, too, because many chemicals are used to clean and preserve the artifacts. Paleontologists also require broad knowledge of biology and geology, because they must study fossils and try to figure out how the Earth changed over time.


Paleontology is the study of fossils and how they relate to life on Earth. It involves studying rocks, minerals and fossils to understand how different species have changed over time. There are several areas of paleontology including invertebrate paleontology (the study of sea sponges, clams, insects and slugs), micropaleontology (the study of microscopic fossils such as pollen and plant fragments) and vertebrate paleontology (the study of dinosaurs and other vertebrates).

Many paleontologists work in universities and colleges, teaching students and conducting research. Some work in museums, organizing and curating collections of fossils.

A career in paleontology requires a graduate degree, typically a master’s or doctorate of science. Most reputable graduate programs offer funding through research or teaching assistantships and fellowships, which can cover tuition costs and provide a stipend that can help pay for living expenses. The career path of a paleontologist can vary based on personal goals and the specific requirements of individual graduate programs.


As people build, dig, and destroy they leave behind traces of their activities. The job of an archaeologist is to find these traces and learn about the lives of the people who created them.

To do this, they must carefully examine the surface of the earth to determine where to dig. They may use a variety of tools and techniques including satellite imaging and global positioning systems to map sites before digging.

Archaeologists also work to keep remains as intact as possible. Ideally, they are left in place where they were found. If this is not possible, then they are carefully moved using a variety of methods.

Once artifacts are excavated they must be cleaned, recorded, and categorized. They are then sent back to the lab for further analysis. Archaeologists create categories called assemblages that are groups of objects that come from the same site and time period. This helps to create a chronology of activity on a site and can provide important clues about the culture.


Often, it’s hard to separate archaeology and paleontology because they both dig for artifacts. Paleontologists are experts in finding fossils, and they have special equipment to dig for them. Shovels are used in addition to specialized tools such as trowels, pickaxes and chisels. Nothing is discarded until it has been thoroughly analyzed. Paleontologists must make detailed GIS maps to accurately locate their finds.

Then, they can study them to discover more about the ancient world. They also need to be good at using chemistry, biology and mathematics.

Archaeology is a sub-discipline of anthropology, which studies different human cultures through relics and remains. It also focuses on the cultural implications of past lifestyles. For example, animal bones with stone tool cut marks may indicate that they were exploited by early humans. Archaeologists need to be well-educated in anthropology, ancient history and conservation to qualify for their jobs. They may also need a degree in physics or engineering to gain employment.

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