The History of Ancient Geology

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Pages:  6
Wordcount:  1559 Words
Date:  2021-03-24

Geology refers to the study of the Earth, the earths materials, their structure, and the processes acting on them. The most important part of geology is the study of how Earths materials, processes, structures, and organisms have changed over time. The history of geology focuses on the development of the natural science of geology. Throughout the ages, geology provides essential theories and data that shape how society conceptualizes the Earth (Fernandez, Munoz, Arbues, Falivene & Marzo, 2004). This paper delves into the history of ancient geology science till the middle era, the role of different ancient civilizations in geology and the roles of Muslim and Western scientists in geology.

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Classical Period

The origin of the earth is among the first geological thoughts. By recognizing critical surface processes at work, the Arabic, Roman and Greek civilizations contributed to the growth of knowledge about the earth. Ancient Greece developed some major geological concepts concerning the origin of the Earth. For instance, Aristotle discovered the erosion and deposition of the surface material. He made observations on the composition of the land and came up with a theory where the Earth slowly changes and the changes cannot be experienced during a person's lifetime. The philosopher Theophrastus, Aristotle's successor at the Lyceum, made the greatest progress in antiquity in his work on stones. He focused on the description of many minerals and ores from local mines including those at Laurium near Athens, as well as those further afield. He primitively classified minerals basing on their properties such as hardness and also discussed building materials such as limestones and types of marbles. In the Roman period, Pliny and Empedocles provided descriptions of the eruption of Pompeii and Etna. Pliny the Elder came up with a very broad discussion regarding minerals and metals used for practical ends. He not only laid the basis of crystallography but was also one of the first to identify the origin of amber correctly as a fossilized resin from trees (Gohau, Carozzi & Carozzi, 1990)

Xenophanes described fossil fish and shells found in deposits on mountains at about 540BC. Herodotus noted similar fossils at about 490BC and also at 384-322BC by Aristotle. Aristotle believed earthquakes and volcanic eruptions were as a result of violent winds escaping from the interior of the earth. At about 200BC, Eratosthenes, a librarian at Alexandria made surprisingly accurate measurements of the circumference of the earth by plotting the angles between perpendicular and the suns rays at two locations (Alexandria and Syene) on the same meridian. Arabs discovered the magnetic properties and applied it in the making of crude compasses (Ellenberger, 1999)

Medieval and Renaissance times.

At about AD 570-636, authors such as Isidore of Seville, Vincent de Beauvais and Bartholomew the Englishman developed the ideas of earlier writers on geology. At about 973-1048AD Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni, one of the earliest Muslim geologists worked on the earliest writings of the geology of India with the hypothesis that the Indian subcontinent was initially a sea. At 981-1037, Ibn Sina, a Persian polymath significantly contributed to geology and natural science (Attabeiyat) along with other natural philosophers including Ikhwan Al-Safa. In his encyclopedic work entitled Kitab al-Shifa- the book of Cure, Healing or Remedy from ignorance, Ibn Sina comments on Aristotles Mineralogy and Metrology, as well as the formation of mountains. In ancient China, Shen Kuo, one of the most intriguing naturalists would dab in many fields of study during 1031-1095. The polymath personality contributed to geology by being one of the first naturalists to have formulated a theory of geomorphology basing on his observations of soil erosion, sedimentary uplift, deposition of silt and marine fossils found in Taihang Mountains. Also, after his observation of ancient petrified bamboos found in a preserved underground near Yanzhou, he formulated the theory of gradual climate change (Rosenberg, 2001)

Between 1452 and 1519, Leonard de Vinci, scientist and inventor, discovered that fossil shells are the remains of once living organisms and that changes had occurred in the relationship between land and sea. At about 1494-1556, Georg Bauer also referred to as Agricola focused on advancing the knowledge of minerals and metal carrying veins. In 1556, his great work De Re Metallica clearly describes mining and metallurgy as they have been conducted at the time. In Switzerland, Conrad Gesner published a fine and illustrated work in 1565 with a Latin title which meant, all about fossils, stones, and gems. George Owen carried out scientific observations on Strata in England at about 1570, which was later published in 1796 (Winchester, 2002)

The Seventeenth and Early-to-mid Eighteenth Century

Significant advances in geology were made in the 17th Century. It was during this period that geology became its entity and cut its niche from the world of natural science. Until 1638-1686 (the time of Nicholas Steno) most of the geological information was in the fields of mining and mineralogy (Gladenkov, 2007). During the 17th Century, there was a heated debate between science and religion over the Earth's origin. In 1696, William Whitson the book a new Theory of the Earth, whereby, he used the Christian reasoning to conclude that the Great Flood had happened and formed the rock strata of the Earth. On the other hand, basing on a broad geological view, Steno studied rocks and used direct observations to aid in the provision of useful conclusions. Steno was the first to demonstrate the basic principles about layers of the sedimentary rock. To illustrate his theories, he used diagrams, which showed the geological history of Tuscany. Steno is credited with the law of superposition, the principle of lateral continuity, as well as the principle of original horizontality (three defining principles of stratigraphy) (Faure, 1998). Ulisse Aldrovandi was the first person to use the world geology in 1603.

In the eighteenth century, it was quite popular for the men of culture to record their findings in the natural sciences. There was a heightened focus on minerals and other components of the earth's crust. Also, with the increasing economic importance of mining in Europe, it was imperative that they possessed precise information about ores and their distribution naturally. Scholars would then start studying the makeup of the earth in a more systematic manner with detailed descriptions and comparisons both to the land and the semi-precious metals it contained that possessed a high commercial value. In the coalfields of England, the succession of the rocks was well-documented. John Strachey published two interesting papers illustrating the order of rocks in South-West England in 1719 and 1725. He stated that in as much as the coal strata were all inclined, the overlying rocks horizontally laid across them. In Europe, the first real attempt to apply systematic subdivisions on the rocks were made by Giovanni Arduino at about 1714-1795 in Italy, Peter Pallas at about 1741-1811 in Russia and Johann Lehmann at about 1719-1767 in Germany (Rosenberg, 2009)

Arduino classified the rocks in Northern Italy into Primitive, Secondary, Tertiary, and Volcanic. He based his classification on the occurrence of fossils and the appearance of the rocks. In 1756, Lehmann distinguished the three orders of mountains into 1) those he believed to have resulted from the earth formation, 2) those formed from sediments deposited in sheets under water, 3) volcanic mountains. At about 1722-1773, George Fuchsel worked to advance Lehmanns work and published one of the first geological maps in his book A History of the Earth and the Sea, Based on a History of Mountains of Thuringia in 1762. In Russia, Pallas discovered three broad divisions of rocks and mountain groups. He recognized that there was clear evidence of the presence of the sea in former time in some areas and supposed the elevation of the mountains was as a result of the uplift during commotions of the globe. In the mid-eighteenth century, the history of geology was studied from a scientific point of view. It was after the term Geology was used by Denis Diderot in the encyclopedia that it was well received (Dalrymple, 1991) . In 1741, the first teaching position of geology was designated by the National Museum History, France. In 1770s, there were two conflicting theories among the Plutonists and Neptunists regarding how the rock layers were formed. Abraham Werner, a German Geologist, was shepherding the Neptunist proposing that the earth's layers were formed after precipitation, which covered the whole earth. On the Other hand, James Hutton, a Scottish naturalist, proposed the theory of Plutonism, which stated that the earth formed as a result of gradual solidification of molten mass, which continues to occur till today.


Dalrymple, G. B. (1991). The Age of the Earth. California, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-1569-6.

Ellenberger, F. (1999). History of Geology (Vol 2). Rotterdam, Netherlands: A.A Balkema.

Faure, G. (1998). Principles and Applications of Geochemistry: A comprehensive Textbook for Geology Students. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 978-0-02-336450-1.26040306

Fernandez, O., Munoz, J. A., Arbues, P., Falivene, O., Marzo, M. (2004). "Three-dimensional reconstruction of geological surfaces: An example of Growth Strata and Turbidite Systems from the Ainsa Basin (Pyrenees, Spain)". AAPG Bulletin, 88(8), 10491068. Doi: 10.1306/02 Gladenkov, V., 2007. The new Russian stratigraphic code and some problems of stratigraphic classification. Stratigraphy, 4, 169-172

Gohau, G., Carozzi A.V., & Carozzi, M. (1990). A History of Geology. New Brunswich, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Rosenberg, G. D. (2009). The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to Enlightment. Boulder, Colorado: Geological Society of America.

Winchester, S. (2002). The map that changed the world: William Smith and the birth of modern geology. New York, NY: Perennial. ISBN 0-06-093180-9.

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