Leonardo da Vinci, Geologist and Ichnologist

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I. Tattersall



Leonardo da Vinci’s private diaries and notebooks are known above all for their ingenious and imaginative excursions into technology and engineering, but they also contain important and original insights into such aspects of the pure sciences as the structure of the human body and – as discussed here – the evolution of the landscape. Leonardo’s views of planetary-scale geological processes harked back to Classical notions, but his empirical observations of the Tuscan landscape and of the rocks that composed it were astonishingly modern in spirit and analytic style, leading him to an understanding of geological stratigraphy and landscape history that was a century and a half ahead of his time. In his private musings Leonardo was thus readily able to dismiss both the Biblical and the “Inorganic” theories of fossil formation that were current in his day, purely on the basis of empirical observation and reasoning. Along the way, his recognition of the effects of bioturbation in the marine sediments of western Tuscany, and his consequent recognition of trace fossils within them, made Leonardo in effect an ichnologist, three centuries before this branch of paleontology came into existence. Leonardo wisely kept his geological musings strictly private, but it is intriguing to speculate on how the history of this branch of science might have differed if he had not. In terms of his artistic output, Leonardo produced as early as 1473 what is probably the earliest western drawing in which the landscape is the primary subject; and the backgrounds of his paintings so scrupulously respect geological accuracy as to provoke the claim that such fidelity to nature is an “index of authenticity” in his work.

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How to Cite
Tattersall, I. (2021). Leonardo da Vinci, Geologist and Ichnologist. Human Evolution , 36(3-4), 171-184. https://doi.org/10.14673/HE2021341084
Author Biography

I. Tattersall

Tattersall I.Division of Anthropology
American Museum of Natural History
New York NY 10024, USA
Email: iant@amnh.org