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Central American vertebrate fossils are primarily of late Cenozoic age and represent all of the major taxonomic groups of vertebrates. The vertebrate fossils of Central America play an important part in understanding the great American biotic interchange after the closure of the Panamanian isthmus. We divide the narrative history of vertebrate palaeontology in Central America into three periods: earliest discoveries (1858–1936); a developing record (1937–80); and a vertebrate palaeontological renaissance (1980–present). An analytical history, applying the ‘model’ proposed by Basalla of how science diffuses into any non-European nation, indicates a poor fit of Central American vertebrate palaeontology to this ‘model’. Central American vertebrate palaeontology mostly remains in the first phase of Basalla’s ‘model’, primarily providing vertebrate fossils for study by palaeontologists in the USA; phase 2 (colonial science) was essentially skipped and phase 3 (establishment of an independent scientific programme) is in an early stage. The development of vertebrate palaeontology in Central America better fits the idea that all three phases of Basalla’s ‘model’ are ongoing and intermingled. Vertebrate palaeontology is a science of little economic significance and this largely explains its slow development in Central America, where political instabilities and economic disadvantages have long affected the development of science.

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