R. Callow, D. McIlroy, M. Brasier
Jul 1, 2011
John W. Salter's papers of 1856 and 1857 reported trace and body fossils from rocks of the Longmyndian Supergroup, Shropshire, that conventional wisdom had deemed literally “Azoic.” The significance of this work is reflected by its mention in On the Origin of Species, where it is cited as evidence for the existence of life prior to the Cambrian radiation. This study of Salter's historic specimens combined with recent field studies confirms that these structures likely represent microbial rather than metazoan markings. Nevertheless, this review confirms Salter as the unheralded founder of Precambrian palaeontology, many years before the existence of a Precambrian fossil record was widely known. This study also gives credit to a highly skilled palaeontologist, who appears to have struggled with psychological problems throughout his life. Salter had once been Adam Sedgwick's “youthful and cheerful companion” in the field, prior to embarking on an initially successful Geological Survey career. He was a widely renowned expert on Palaeozoic palaeontology, especially trilobites, but eventually fell into serious depression, which culminated in his suicide in 1869. Study and reinterpretation of his original materials reaffirms the importance of Salter's discoveries, and the Longmynd for our understanding of late Ediacaran palaeobiology.