1560 Gesner first fossil illustration

1560 Gesner first fossil illustration

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Credit: PAUL D STEWART/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Caption: Woodcut with old colouring. Gesner "Icones Animalium" publ. Christof Froschover, Zurich, 1560 (also 1558 in Historiae Animalium, Liber IIII). This is the first Western illustration to clearly place a fossil in the context of being the remains of a living organism - in this case a shark's fossil tooth nearby a shark with similar teeth. The origin of fossils was unknown in the 16th century. Here Gesner notes that the Glossopetra (or tongue stones) of Pliny (often from Malta) strongly resemble sharks' teeth. Indeed he hints that they are indeed sharks' teeth (possibly guided by Rondelet 1554). The received wisdom from Pliny was that they fell from the sky during lunar eclipses, while others thought they were petrified tongues of dragons and snakes. The shark's tooth realisation is often attributed to Steno a century later. His understanding of fossils was indeed more complete than Gesner's.

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Keywords: 16th century, animalium, animals, artwork, bestiary, colour, conrad, early, first, folklore, fossil, gesner, gessner, glossopetrae, historiae, icones, illustration, middle ages, natural history, nicolaus, palaeontology, paleontology, shark, steno, tongue stones, tooth, woodcut

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