Ever since recorded history began, and probably before, people have found fossils, pieces of rock and minerals which have replaced the remains of biologic organisms or preserved their external form. These fossils, and the totality of their occurrence within the sequence of Earth's rock strata is referred to as the fossil record.
The fossil record was one of the early sources of data relevant to the study of evolution and continues to be relevant to the history of life on Earth. Paleontologists examine the fossil record in order to understand the process of evolution and the way particular species have evolved.
William Smith (1769-1839), an English canal engineer, observed that rocks of different ages (based on the law of superposition) preserved different assemblages of fossils, and that these assemblages succeeded one another in a regular and determinable order. He observed that rocks from distant locations could be correlated based on the fossils they contained. He termed this the principle of faunal succession.
Smith, who preceded Charles Darwin, was unaware of biological evolution and did not know why faunal succession occurred. Biological evolution explains why faunal succession exists: as different organisms evolve, change and go extinct, they leave behind fossils. Faunal succession was one of the chief pieces of evidence cited by Darwin that biological evolution had occurred.
When Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, the oldest animal fossils were those from the Cambrian Period, now known to be about 540 million years old. The absence of older fossils worried Darwin about the implications for the validity of his theories, but he expressed hope that such fossils would be found, noting that: "only a small portion of the world is known with accuracy." Darwin also pondered the sudden appearance of many groups (i.e., Phyla) in the oldest known Cambrian fossiliferous strata.
Since Darwin's time, the fossil record has been pushed back to 3.5 billion years before the present. Most of these fossils are microscopic bacteria or microfossils. However, macroscopic fossils are now known from the late Proterozoic. The Ediacaran biota (also called Vendian biota) dating from 575 million years ago collectively constitutes a richly diverse assembly of early multicellular Eukaryotes.
The fossil record and faunal succession form the basis of the science of biostratigraphy or determining the age of rocks based on the fossils they contain. For the first 150 years of geology, biostratigraphy and superposition were the only means for determining the relative age of rocks. The Geologic time scale was developed based on the relative ages of rock strata as determined by the early paleontologists and stratigraphers.
Since the early years of the twentieth century, absolute dating methods, such as radiometric dating (including potassium/argon, argon/argon, uranium series, and carbon-14 dating) have been used to verify the relative ages obtained by fossils and to provide absolute ages for many fossils. Radiometric dating has shown that the earliest known fossils are over 3.5 billion years old. Various dating methods have been used and are used today depending on local geology and context, and while there is some variance in the results from these dating methods, nearly all of them provide evidence for a very old Earth, approximately 4.6 billion years.
Some casual observers have been perplexed by the rarity of transitional species within the fossil record. The conventional explanation for this rarity was given by Darwin, who stated that "the extreme imperfection of the geological record," combined with the short duration and narrow geographical range of transitional species, made it unlikely that many such fossils would be found. Simply put, the conditions under which fossilization takes place are quite rare; and it is highly unlikely that any given organism will leave behind a fossil. Stephen J. Gould developed his theory of punctuated equilibrium in part to explain the pattern of stasis and sudden appearance in the fossil record.
Even so, various religious groups within the Abrahamic tradition have tried to explain the scientific evidence in the fossil record in ways compatible with creationist doctrine. These explanations are generally rejected by scientists as they make no useful testable predictions.
- Charles Darwin (1859). On the Origin of Species. Chapter 10: On the Imperfection of the Geological Record.