Lesson Objectives

  • Explain Steno’s laws of superposition and original horizontality.
  • Based on a geological cross-section, identify the oldest and youngest formations.
  • Explain what an unconformity represents.
  • Know how to use fossils to correlate rock layers.

Introduction

Something that we hope you have learned from these lessons and from your own life experience is that the laws of nature never change. They are the same today as they were billions of years ago. Water freezes at 0o C at 1 atmosphere pressure; this is always true.
Knowing that natural laws never change helps scientists understand Earth’s past because it allows them to interpret clues about how things happened long ago. Geologists always use present-day processes to interpret the past. If you find a fossil of a fish in a dry terrestrial environment did the fish flop around on land? Did the rock form in water and then move? Since fish do not flop around on land today, the explanation that adheres to the philosophy that natural laws do not change is that the rock moved.

Fossils were Living Organisms

In 1666, a young doctor named Nicholas Steno dissected the head of an enormous great white shark that had been caught by fisherman near Florence, Italy. Steno was struck by the resemblance of the shark’s teeth to fossils found in inland mountains and hills (Figure below).
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Fossil Shark Tooth (left) and Modern Shark Tooth (right).
Most people at the time did not believe that fossils were once part of living creatures. Authors in that day thought that the fossils of marine animals found in tall mountains, miles from any ocean could be explained in one of two ways:
  • The shells were washed up during the Biblical flood. (This explanation could not account for the fact that fossils were not only found on mountains, but also within mountains, in rocks that had been quarried from deep below Earth’s surface.)
  • The fossils formed within the rocks as a result of mysterious forces.
But for Steno, the close resemblance between fossils and modern organisms was impossible to ignore. Instead of invoking supernatural forces, Steno concluded that fossils were once parts of living creatures. He then sought to explain how fossil seashells could be found in rocks and mountains far from any ocean. This led him to the ideas that are discussed below.

Superposition of Rock Layers

Steno proposed that if a rock contained the fossils of marine animals, the rock formed from sediments that were deposited on the seafloor. These rocks were then uplifted to become mountains. Based on these assumptions, Steno made a remarkable series of conjectures that are now known as Steno’s Laws. These laws are illustrated below in (Figure below), (Figure below), and (Figure below).
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. Sediments are deposited in fairly flat, horizontal layers. If a sedimentary rock is found tilted, the layer was tilted after it was formed.
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. Sediments are deposited in continuous sheets that span the body of water that they are deposited in. When a valley cuts through sedimentary layers, it is assumed that the rocks on either side of the valley were originally continuous.
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. Sedimentary rocks are deposited one on top of another. The youngest layers are found at the top of the sequence, and the oldest layers are found at the bottom.
Other scientists observed rock layers and formulated other principles. Geologist William Smith (1769-1839) identified the principle of faunal succession, which recognizes that:
  • Some fossil types are never found with certain other fossil types (e.g. human ancestors are never found with dinosaurs) meaning that fossils in a rock layer represent what lived during the period the rock was deposited.
  • Older features are replaced by more modern features in fossil organisms as species change through time; e.g. feathered dinosaurs precede birds in the fossil record.
  • Fossil species with features that change distinctly and quickly can be used to determine the age of rock layers quite precisely.
Scottish geologist, James Hutton (1726-1797) recognized the principle of cross-cutting relationships. This helps geologists to determine the older and younger of two rock units (Figure below).
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If an igneous dike (B) cuts a series of metamorphic rocks (A), which is older and which is younger? In this image, A must have existed first for B to cut across it.
The Grand Canyon provides an excellent illustration of the principles above. The many horizontal layers of sedimentary rock illustrate the principle of original horizontality (Figure below).
  • The youngest rock layers are at the top and the oldest are at the bottom, which is described by the law of superposition.
  • Distinctive rock layers, such as the Kaibab Limestone, are matched across the broad expanse of the canyon. These rock layers were once connected, as stated by the rule of lateral continuity.
  • The Colorado River cuts through all the layers of rock to form the canyon. Based on the principle of cross-cutting relationships, the river must be younger than all of the rock layers that it cuts through.
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The Grand Canyon, with the Kaibab Limestone marked with arrows.

Determining the Relative Ages of Rocks

Steno’s and Smith’s principles are essential for determining the relative ages of rocks and rock layers. In the process of relative dating, scientists do not determine the exact age of a fossil or rock but look at a sequence of rocks to try to decipher the times that an event occurred relative to the other events represented in that sequence. The relative age of a rock then is its age in comparison with other rocks. If you know the relative ages of two rock layers, (1) Do you know which is older and which is younger? (2) Do you know how old the layers are in years?
An interactive website on relative ages and geologic time is found here: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/education/explorations/tours/geotime/gtpage1.html
In some cases, it is very tricky to determine the sequence of events that leads to a certain formation. Can you figure out what happened in what order in (Figure below)? Write it down and then check the following paragraphs.
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A geologic cross section: Sedimentary rocks (A-C), igneous intrusion (D), fault (E).
The principle of cross-cutting relationships states that a fault or intrusion is younger than the rocks that it cuts through. The fault cuts through all three sedimentary rock layers (A, B, and C) and also the intrusion (D). So the fault must be the youngest feature. The intrusion (D) cuts through the three sedimentary rock layers, so it must be younger than those layers. By the law of superposition, C is the oldest sedimentary rock, B is younger and A is still younger.
The full sequence of events is:
1. Layer C formed.
2. Layer B formed.
3. Layer A formed.
4. After layers A-B-C were present, intrusion D cut across all three.
5. Fault E formed, shifting rocks A through C and intrusion D.
6. Weathering and erosion created a layer of soil on top of layer A.

Earth’s Age

During Steno’s time, most Europeans believed that the Earth was around 6,000 years old, a figure that was based on the amount of time estimated for the events described in the Bible. One of the first scientists to question this assumption and to understand geologic time was James Hutton. Hutton traveled around Great Britain in the late 1700s, studying sedimentary rocks and their fossils (Figure below).
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A drawing by James Hutton. "Theory of the Earth,
Often described as the founder of modern geology, Hutton formulated uniformitarianism: The present is the key to the past. According to uniformitarianism, the same processes that operate on Earth today operated in the past as well. Why is an acceptance of this principle absolutely essential for us to be able to decipher Earth history?
Hutton questioned the age of the Earth when he looked at rock sequences like the one below. On his travels, he discovered places where sedimentary rock beds lie on an eroded surface. At this gap in rock layers, or unconformity, some rocks were eroded away. For example, consider the famous unconformity at Siccar Point, on the coast of Scotland (Figure below).
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Hutton
1. A series of sedimentary beds was deposited on an ocean floor.
2. The sediments hardened into sedimentary rock.
3. The sedimentary rocks are uplifted and tilted, exposing them above sea level.
4. The tilted beds were eroded to form an irregular surface.
5. A sea covered the eroded sedimentary rock layers.
6. New sedimentary layers were deposited.
7. The new layers hardened into sedimentary rock.
8. The whole rock sequence was tilted.
9. Uplift occurred, exposing the new sedimentary rocks above the ocean surface.
Since he thought that the same processes at work on Earth today worked at the same rate in the past, he had to account for all of these events and the unknown amount of missing time represented by the unconformity, Hutton realized that this rock sequence alone represented a great deal of time. He concluded that Earth’s age should not be measured in thousands of years, but in millions of years.

Matching Up Rock Layers

Superposition and cross-cutting are helpful when rocks are touching one another and lateral continuity helps match up rock layers that are nearby, but how do geologists correlate rock layers that are separated by greater distances? There are three kinds of clues:
1. Distinctive rock formations may be recognizable across large regions (Figure below).
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The famous White Cliffs of Dover in southwest England can be matched to similar white cliffs in Denmark and Germany.
2. Two separated rock units with the same index fossil are of very similar age. What traits do you think an index fossil should have? To become an index fossil the organism must have (1) been widespread so that it is useful for identifying rock layers over large areas and (2) existed for a relatively brief period of time so that the approximate age of the rock layer is immediately known.
Many fossils may qualify as index fossils (Figure below). Ammonites, trilobites, and graptolites are often used as index fossils.
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Mucrospirifer mucronatus is an index fossil that indicates that a rock was laid down from 416 to 359 million years ago.
Microfossils, which are fossils of microscopic organisms, are also useful index fossils. Fossils of animals that drifted in the upper layers of the ocean are particularly useful as index fossils, since they may be distributed over very large areas.
A biostratigraphic unit, or biozone, is a geological rock layer that is defined by a single index fossil or a fossil assemblage. A biozone can also be used to identify rock layers across distances.
3. A key bed can be used like an index fossil since a key bed is a distinctive layer of rock that can be recognized across a large area. A volcanic ash unit could be a good key bed. One famous key bed is the clay layer at the boundary between the Cretaceous Period and the Tertiary Period, the time that the dinosaurs went extinct (Figure below). This thin clay contains a high concentration of iridium, an element that is rare on Earth but common in asteroids. In 1980, the father-son team of Luis and Walter Alvarez proposed that a huge asteroid struck Earth 66 million years ago and caused the mass extinction.
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The white clay is a key bed that marks the Cretaceous-Tertiary Boundary.

The Geologic Time Scale

To be able to discuss Earth history, scientists needed some way to refer to the time periods in which events happened and organisms lived. With the information they collected from fossil evidence and using Steno’s principles, they created a listing of rock layers from oldest to youngest. Then they divided Earth’s history into blocks of time with each block separated by important events, such as the disappearance of a species of fossil from the rock record. Since many of the scientists who first assigned names to times in Earth’s history were from Europe, they named the blocks of time from towns or other local places where the rock layers that represented that time were found.
From these blocks of time the scientists created the geologic time scale (Figure below). In the geologic time scale the youngest ages are on the top and the oldest on the bottom. Why do you think that the more recent time periods are divided more finely? Do you think the divisions in the scale below are proportional to the amount of time each time period represented in Earth history?
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The geologic time scale is based on relative ages. No actual ages were placed on the original time scale.
In what eon, era, period and epoch do we now live? We live in the Holocene (sometimes called Recent) epoch, Quaternary period, Cenozoic era, and Phanerozoic eon.

Lesson Summary

  • Nicholas Steno formulated the principles in the 17th century that allow scientists to determine the relative ages of rocks. Steno stated that sedimentary rocks are formed in continuous, horizontal layers, with younger layers on top of older layers.
  • William Smith and James Hutton later discovered the principles of cross-cutting relationships and faunal succession.
  • Hutton also realized the vast amounts of time that would be needed to create an unconformity and concluded that Earth was much older than people at the time thought.
  • The guiding philosophy of Hutton and geologists who came after him is: The present is the key to the past.
  • To correlate rock layers that are separated by a large distance look for sedimentary rock formations that are extensive and recognizable, index fossils, and key beds.
  • Changes of fossils over time led to the development of the geologic time scale, which illustrates the relative order in which events on Earth have happened.

Review Questions

1. A 15th century farmer finds a rock that looks exactly like a clamshell. What did he likely conclude about how the fossil got there?
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2. Which of Steno’s Laws is illustrated by each of the images in (Figure above
)?
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Sequence of Rock Units
3. What is the sequence of rock units in (Figure above), from oldest to youngest?
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Outcrop
4. What kind of geological formation is shown in the outcrop in (Figure above), and what sequence of events does it represent?
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Three outcrops

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