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A history of paleontology in China

Life is the most exquisite natural outcome on our planet, arising as an evolutionary experiment that has persisted since the formation of this planet 4.5 billion years ago.

The enormous biodiversity we see today represents only a small fraction of life that has existed on earth. As the most intelligent (and probably lucky!) species, we humans, with our unique and conscious minds, have never stopped inquiring where we came from.

By unearthing and examining fossils—petrified remains left behind by prehistoric organisms—paleontology deciphers the biological messages of past organisms.

Fossils were discovered early in human history, and their meaning was interpreted in various ways by Western wisdom and by Chinese naturalists for over 2000 years.

Paleontology as a scientific discipline took shape in 18th-century Europe and grew quickly during the 19th century. After Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, paleontology as a school of natural sciences refocused on understanding the evolutionary path of life.

Along with developments in geology, biology, and modern technology in the 19th and 20th centuries, the traditional practice of paleontology using morphology, taxonomy, and biochronology evolved into a form that is equipped with multidisciplinary approaches and is technically and methodologically sophisticated. New concepts, theories, and methods that developed along with the appearance and progress of plate tectonics, radiometric dating, stable isotopic studies, and molecular biology are now blended into the blood of traditional paleontology.

Searching for the mechanisms behind the diversification of life, mass extinctions, and the paleoenvironmental background, paleontology has been brought to a new stage in which organisms and their surroundings have become a single multifaceted research subject commonly tackled by joint international teamwork.

Paleontology in China has blossomed into a strong research enterprise during the last two decades, thanks to an enriched intellectual atmosphere, the energy of a promising economy, and the groundwork laid by generations of scientists.

China contains rich and unique fossil resources, such as the Precambrian Weng’an Biota, the early Cambrian Chengjiang Biota, and the Early Cretaceous Jehol Biota, to name but a few. Numerous important fossils, some of which are considered to be ‘missing links’ in the chain of organismal evolution, have been discovered in the strata of various geologic time intervals.

Research on these fossils has significantly advanced our knowledge of the history of life as a whole.

Discoveries are forever, and our efforts to search for the history of life are endless. What has been achieved in paleontology in China is undoubtedly superb, but it is only the opening statement of an influential speech; much remains to be said in the decades to come. The great potential for research opportunities needs to be cultivated and numerous scientific problems remain to be solved. Looking into the history of life, we see a bright future for the study of paleontology in China and the rest of the world.

Image Credit: “Death Throw.” Photo by Mike Beauregard. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

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