In the past two weeks I’ve discussed eons, eras and periods of the geologic time scale. Now it’s time for the smallest commonly used division: the epoch. I’m only going to focus on the epochs of the Cenozoic era.
We have already come across both parts of Paleocene: paleo and -cene. Paleo comes from the Greek word ‘palaio‘ which means ancient and cene comes from the Greek word ‘kainos‘ which means recent. In other words, Paleocene is a bit of an oxymoron and literally means the ancient recent. It was the oldest epoch of the Paleogene period and lasted from 66 million years ago until 56 million years ago.
Eocene breaks down into eo and –cene. Eo comes from the Greek word ‘eos‘ which means dawn and we already know that cene means recent. It was the second epoch in the Paleogene period and lasted from 56 million years ago until 33.9 million years ago.
Oligocene breaks down into oligo and –cene. Oligo comes from the Greek word ‘oligos‘ which means scanty or few and cene means recent. It was named for the few fossils found in Oligocene sediments. Badlands National Park is known for its Oligocene fossils. It lasted from 33.9 million years ago until 23 million years ago and was the most recent epoch in the Paleogene period.
Miocene breaks down into mio and –cene. Mio comes from the Greek word ‘meion‘ which means less and cene means recent. It was the first epoch of the Neogene period and lasted from 23 million years ago until 5.3 million years ago.
Pliocene breaks down into plio and -cene. Plio comes from the Greek word ‘pleio‘ which means more and cene means recent. It was the most recent epoch of the Neogene period and lasted from 5.3 million years ago until 2.5 million years ago. The Pliocene is often used by climate scientists to predict future climate change because it was a few degrees warmer than today.
Pleistocene breaks down into pleisto and –cene. Pleisto comes from the Greek word ‘pleistos‘ which means most and cene means recent. It was the oldest epoch in the Quaternary period and lasted from 2.5 million years ago until 11,700 years ago. The Pleistocene was the last global Ice Age and was known for its large mammals. A Pleistocene Park was built in Russia to mimic the mammoth steppe habitat.
Holocene breaks down into holo and -cene. Holo is a Greek word meaning whole and cene means recent. It lasted from 11,700 years ago until the present day and is the shortest epoch. Bon Iver has a song by the same name.
Personally, I find it amusing that epochs of the Neogene and Quaternary periods translate to less recent, more recent, most recent and wholly recent. It might seem childish at first, but straightforward descriptions like that can make scientific understanding more universal.