Introduction: History of Quaternary science

Scott Elias

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The study of Quaternary environments began in the late eighteenth century, as fossil and geologic evidence demonstrated Earth's antiquity. In the late eighteenth century, Arduino coined the term ‘Quaternary’ to describe the four most recent geologic eras. Various nineteenth-century geologists, notably Lyell, clarified this geologic framework of the Quaternary, firmly establishing it by the end of that century.

In the nineteenth century, Cuvier demonstrated the extinction of some Pleistocene mammals and invoked an environmental ‘revolution’ (large-scale cooling) as the cause. Agassiz developed this idea into the concept of the ‘Great Ice Age.’ Toward the end of the nineteenth century, geologic fieldwork in Europe and North America documented at least four major Pleistocene glacial–interglacial cycles in these regions.

Theories concerning the causes of Ice Ages also developed in the nineteenth century, starting with Croll's hypothesis that changes in Earth's orbit around the Sun are responsible for glaciation. Milankovitch further developed the orbital forcing theory in the twentieth century. The ability to assign absolute ages for major Pleistocene events came about with the invention of radiometric dating methods, such as uranium-series and radiocarbon dating, in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEncyclopedia of Quaternary Science
EditorsScott Elias
Place of PublicationAmsterdam
Number of pages8
ISBN (Print)978-0-444-53642-6
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2013


  • Agassiz; Arduino; Brückner; Croll; Cuvier; Geikie; Glaciation; Ice Ages; Lyell; Milankovitch; Penck; Pleistocene; Quaternary period; Vertebrate paleontology

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