I’ve wanted to be a paleontologist since I was a little kid. In fact, I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else. I was that kid that actually enjoyed going to natural history museums. Spring was my favorite season because you could find the skeletons of animals that had died during the winter in the woods. My family even had a colony of dermestid beetles!
At an early age, I realized that path was more difficult than I thought. In first grade, my class made ‘About Me’ books which included things like our phone number, how many siblings we had and what we wanted to be when we grew up. Since I was only 7 years old, I had to ask my teacher how to spell ‘paleontologist’. A few years later I looked back at that little book and realized that instead of telling me how to spell ‘paleontologist’, my teacher spelled ‘archeologist’, probably assuming that I was mistaken. Therein lies the problem.
When I tell people that I am a paleontologist, frequently their reaction is “Oh, like Indiana Jones?”. No, I am not like Indiana Jones. Similarly, when I tell people that I spent two summers working at the Mammoth Site they say “So you’re an archeologist?”. No, I’m not an archeologist. Sometimes when I say that I am a paleontologist, people correct me and say “You mean an archeologist”. No, I’m not an archeologist. I must admit, I do get a bit annoyed when people mistake paleontology for archeology, as I’m sure an archeologist would be if someone asked if they studied dinosaurs.
I have nothing against archeology. I minored in biological anthropology (which is different from archeology) and took a few archeology courses as an undergrad. I don’t even have anything against Indiana Jones (enough people have already written about Indiana Jones’ archeological shortcomings).
‘Archeology’ has come to refer to at least 3 (depending on where you draw your lines) different disciplines: archeology, paleoanthropology, and paleontology. However, each of these fields has different goals and methods. Archeology is the study of past humans and their cultures based on what they leave behind. Typically, archeology is seen as a social or soft science and deals with a shorter time scale than the other two disciplines. It is limited by material culture: if people don’t leave things behind, there is nothing to study. However, archeology is a complex field. There are forensic archeologists and archeologists who focus on food or even hairstyles.
Paleoanthropology, sometimes known as biological anthropology, can be seen as a middle ground between archeology and paleontology. It also focuses on human history, but it relies on fossil evidence instead of artifacts. Paleoanthropologists study the evolutionary history of humans as well as our nearest living relatives, the primates. It is also complex: some paleoanthropologists focus on biomechanics and how we became bipedal, some study how those changes impacted pregnancy, and others study the genetic link to other species such as Neanderthals and Denisovans. Archeology and biological anthropology are two of the four fields of anthropology: biological anthropology, sociocultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology and archeology.
Paleontology is the odd man out in this comparison. Broadly, it is the study of prehistoric life. That could mean plants or animals, vertebrate or invertebrates, or something different entirely. It blends geology and biology to make a more complete picture. For example, I study fossil plants to determine paleoecology and paleoclimate. There has been life on Earth for billions of years, so there is a lot to study.
The moral of the story is that all three fields are complex, fascinating, and different. As I’m sure my fellow scientists would agree, if you’re not sure what we do just ask us. We love talking about our research.