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The science of paleontology, and its use for relative age dating, was well-established before the science of isotopic age-dating was developed.

Nowadays, age-dating of rocks has established pretty precise numbers for the absolute ages of the boundaries between fossil assemblages, but there's still uncertainty in those numbers, even for Earth.

Paleontologists have examined layered sequences of fossil-bearing rocks all over the world, and noted where in those sequences certain fossils appear and disappear.

When you find the same fossils in rocks far away, you know that the sediments those rocks must have been laid down at the same time.

That last, pink Precambrian column, with its sparse list of epochal names, covers the first four billion years of Earth's history, more than three quarters of Earth's existence. Paleontologists have used major appearances and disappearances of different kinds of fossils on Earth to divide Earth's history -- at least the part of it for which there are lots of fossils -- into lots of eras and periods and epochs.

When you talk about something happening in the Precambrian or the Cenozoic or the Silurian or Eocene, you are talking about something that happened when a certain kind of fossil life was present.

The Geologic Time Scale is up there with the Periodic Table of Elements as one of those iconic, almost talismanic scientific charts.

Long before I understood what any of it meant, I'd daydream in science class, staring at this chart, sounding out the names, wondering what those black-and-white bars meant, wondering what the colors meant, wondering why the divisions were so uneven, knowing it represented some kind of deep, meaningful, systematic organization of scientific knowledge, and hoping I'd have it all figured out one day.

The simplest is the law of superposition: if thing A is deposited on top of (or cuts across, or obliterates) thing B, then thing B must have been there already when thing A happened, so thing B is older than thing A.The chronostratigraphic scale is an agreed convention, whereas its calibration to linear time is a matter for discovery or estimation. We can all agree (to the extent that scientists agree on anything) to the fossil-derived scale, but its correspondence to numbers is a "calibration" process, and we must either make new discoveries to improve that calibration, or estimate as best we can based on the data we have already.To show you how this calibration changes with time, here's a graphic developed from the previous version of Fossils give us this global chronostratigraphic time scale on Earth.Conveniently, the vast majority of rocks exposed on the surface of Earth are less than a few hundred million years old, which corresponds to the time when there was abundant multicellular life here.Look closely at the Geologic Time Scale chart, and you might notice that the first three columns don't even go back 600 million years.

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