USGS: Science for
a Changing World


Relative geologic time scale
The relative geologic time scale. The oldest time interval is at the bottom and the youngest is at the top.
Long before geologists had the means to recognize and express time in numbers of years before the present, they developed the geologic time scale. This time scale was developed gradually, mostly in Europe, over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Earth's history is subdivided into eons, which are subdivided into eras, which are subdivided into periods, which are subdivided into epochs. The names of these subdivisions, like Paleozoic or Cenozoic, may look daunting, but to the geologist there are clues in some of the words. For example, zoic refers to animal life, and paleo means ancient, meso means middle, and ceno means recent. So the relative order of the three youngest eras, first Paleoozoic, then Mesozoic, then Cenoozoic, is straightforward.

Fossils are the recognizable remains, such as bones, shells, or leaves, or other evidence, such as tracks, burrows, or impressions, of past life on Earth. Scientists who study fossils are called paleontologists. Remember that paleo means ancient; so a paleontologist studies ancient forms of life. Fossils are fundamental to the geologic time scale. The names of most of the eons and eras end in zoic, because these time intervals are often recognized on the basis of animal life. Rocks formed during the Proterozoic Eon may have fossils of relative simple organisms, such as bacteria, algae, and wormlike animals. Rocks formed during the Phanerozoic Eon may have fossils of complex animals and plants such as dinosaurs, mammals, and trees.

Scientist takes rock sample to 
laboratory for further study This rock sample will be taken to the laboratory where tiny fossils will be extracted for further study.

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Last updated 14 August 1997 (krw)
Maintained by John Watson