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Hans Hofmann (Bernard Lambert)
Hans Hofmann (Bernard Lambert)

Paleontologist Hans Hofmann filled an evolutionary gap by finding evidence of early life in ancient rocks Add to ...

[body]/note>Hans Hofmann helped ring in the golden age of paleontology in the early 1960s when many evolutionary questions were being answered about the vast unknown stage of life that existed before animals were capable of leaving behind a trace of themselves in fossils.

 Although trained as a geologist, he spent his career searching for and finding evidence of early life in very ancient rocks. His discoveries helped the geological and paleontological world fill in gaps in the little-known Precambrian era, a time period that stretches roughly from 540-million to 4.5-billion years ago. His work had him delving into the micro-organisms that predated more advanced species.  Jokingly, Hofmann liked to compare his research to "being the window-washer in an underground parking garage," according to his former student Guy Narbonne, research chair in paleontology at Queen's University in Kingston.  

The pioneering scientist, who taught at the University of Montreal for 31 years and maintained a research office at McGill University during the last decade, died of a heart attack in Montreal on May 19 at the age of 73.

He was considered by many to be Canada's most important paleontologist.  Besides publishing more than 100 refereed scientific papers, delivering as many conference presentations and some 200 keynote addresses at scholarly meetings around the globe, he won several distinguished prizes. 

In 1980, he received the Billings Medal from the Geological Association of Canada. Usually a lifetime achievement award, he earned it as a young scholar, only 44 years of age.  Fifteen years later he was awarded the Willet Green Miller medal of the Royal Society of Canada for "outstanding research in any field of the earth sciences."  Finally, in 2002 he became the only Canadian to win the Charles Doolittle Walcott medal of the U.S. National Academy of Science for outstanding "individual achievement in advancing knowledge of Precambrian life and its history."

 In Australia in the late 1990s, with colleagues Kath Grey and Arthur Hickman, both now senior researchers at the Geological Survey of Western Australia, he discovered 3.45-billion-year-old stromatolites, trace fossils of bacterial communities. They were the oldest known in the region and the paper about the discovery, for which he was the lead author, made it to the cover of the Geological Society of America Bulletin.

 He found microfossils from 2-billion years ago off the east coast of Hudson Bay, disc-life fossils from 650-million years ago in the Northwest Territories, and discovered key reserves of fossils in Newfoundland, Ontario, northern Quebec and the northern Rockies.

 Applying a scholarly rigour to a field that had often attracted over-confident scientists offering up dubious fossils, Hofmann used biology, chemistry and physics to analyze his own work and often to disprove other scientists' finds. He also invented classification techniques on ranking fossils and organizing time spans.

 "He brought Precambrian paleontology out of the dusty 19th century," said Guy Narbonne, who began his career working as a postdoctoral fellow under Hofmann. 

 When Hofmann began to study paleontology in the 1960s, there was a century-old mystery that needed solving. Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species, published in 1859, had acknowledged that no fossils had been found that dated back more than 500 million years. This lack of physical evidence made it harder for Darwin to prove his theory of evolution. In Darwin's day, the oldest fossils known were lobster-like organisms, with legs, feelers and eyes - all much too evolved to be the earliest forms of life.

 Sir John William Dawson, one of the first principals of McGill University, was a noted geologist who had made his name with the discovery of early amphibians and reptiles in Nova Scotia. A steadfast creationist, he had written in 1865 about a fossil he had found on the banks of the Ottawa River that he claimed was more than twice the age of any life form previously found , leading him to claim it as a "special creation" and using it to disavow Darwin and his theory of evolution. (Dawson's fossil discovery was later proven to be a mere mineral structure.)

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