While can be a variety of things: shells,

While they do have similarities, paleontology and archaeology are two fields with different goals. In this lesson, you’ll learn about these unique sciences, as well as some of the sub-disciplines that fall under each.

Can You Dig It?

Have you ever dreamed of discovering a dinosaur bone? Or perhaps you’d like to be the one to unearth a rare artifact of a lost civilization.

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If so, you would make a good paleontologist or archaeologist. But while these two fields often work together, they are quite different.Paleontology is the study of fossils, while archaeology is the study of human artifacts and remains. They sound similar, but fossils can be a variety of things: shells, tracks and other bodily imprints, bone, wood, and even pollen. Paleontologists uncover and study these fossils, attempting to understand what life was like on Earth long ago for all organisms. Archaeologists do this too but specifically for humans and their history.


Paleontologists study fossils, but the information they get from their discoveries goes far beyond the items they dig up. The fossils buried in Earth’s crust tell a story about our planet’s past. We can learn about Earth’s history ecologically, evolutionarily, and more. In order to do this, paleontology pulls from many other natural science disciplines, like biology, chemistry, and geology.Paleontologists are involved in reconstructing Earth’s climate history, which tells us a lot about what types of climates we can expect in the future.

They are also involved in collecting natural resources, like coal, oil, and natural gas. Not only are these fossils in their own right, but they are also buried deep underground so finding them requires some knowledge of the rocks and minerals that keep them hidden – perfect for a paleontologist!By now, you should be able to see that paleontology is a complex field of study. Because of this, there are many different sub-disciplines that branch out into more specific fields. For example, paleobotonists study plant fossils, and micropaleontologists study microscopic fossils.

There are even invertebrate paleontologists who study invertebrate animal fossils, like ancient sea stars and snails, as well as vertebrate paleontologists who study vertebrate animal fossils, like birds, mammals, and fish. So, while paleontology is described as the study of fossils, clearly this means much more than just digging up bones!


Now, if you want to study human artifacts, archaeology is definitely the field for you. Archaeologists are like paleontologists in that they piece together the past, but these scientists focus on human history by examining artifacts. Human artifacts are anything made and left behind by humans. An artifact could be a simple eating tool, or it could be a complex hunting weapon.

Artifacts aren’t all old, either. If you moved out of your house and left everything behind for someone else to discover, all of those items would be artifacts.Artifacts are a lot like fossils – they tell archaeologists about past human civilizations and recreate a story about the people and their culture. This historical information not only tells us about differences between past cultures and peoples but also helps us learn about our shared heritage as well.

Just thinking about the many different ancient and modern humans who have roamed the earth, it makes sense that archaeologists would need to be quite specialized in various branches of this science.For example, battlefield archaeologists specifically study battlefields, and environmental archaeologists study historical human impacts on the environment. Totally different types of human activity, but both are types of archaeology!There are also maritime archaeologists who study human interaction with oceans and seas, and even economic archaeologists who study economic resources of a people like food and other goods.Just knowing how many different cultures and people are currently living on Earth, it’s easy to see how studying the various past human activities would be a fascinating and exciting field.

Lesson Summary

Many people think that paleontology and archaeology are the same thing.

They are similar, and scientists from both disciplines do often work together, but they are different fields of study.Paleontology is the study of fossils. Paleontologists use fossils to recreate the history of the Earth. From various types of fossils, such as bone, oil, and tracks, paleontologists can understand past ecologies, evolutionary events, and even climate.Archaeology is the study of human artifacts and remains.

Instead of fossils, archaeologists use human-made items to learn about the history of people on Earth. Archaeologists are interested in understanding differences between past peoples, cultures, and civilizations, but also the things that give us a common heritage.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is over, you should be able to:

  • Define archaeology and paleontology
  • Describe the differences between archaeology and paleontology
  • Identify the types of archaeology and paleontology

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