The Student’s Elements of Geology

Author: Charles Lyell

Upper Miocene Beds of Oeningen, in Switzerland.

The faluns of the Loire first served, as already stated, as the type of the Miocene formations in Europe. They yielded a plentiful harvest of marine fossil shells and corals, but were entirely barren of plants and insects. In Switzerland, on the other hand, deposits of the same age have been discovered, remarkable for their botanical and entomological treasures. We are indebted to Professor Heer, of Zurich, for the description, restoration, and classification of several hundred species and varieties of these fossil plants, the whole of which he has illustrated by excellent figures in his "Flora Tertiaria Helvetiae." This great work, and those of Adolphe Brongniart, Unger, Goppert and others, show that this class of fossils is beginning to play the same important part in the classification of the tertiary strata containing lignite or brown coal as an older flora has long played in enabling us to understand the ancient coal or carboniferous formation. No small skepticism has always prevailed among botanists as to whether the leaves alone and the wood of plants could ever afford sufficient data for determining even genera and families in the vegetable kingdom. In truth, before such remains could be rendered available a new science had to be created. It was necessary to study the outlines, nervation, and microscopic structure of the leaves, with a degree of care which had never been called for in the classification of living plants, where the flower and fruit afforded characters so much more definite and satisfactory. As geologists, we can not be too grateful to those who, instead of despairing when so difficult a task was presented to them, or being discouraged when men of the highest scientific attainments treated the fossil leaves as worthless, entered with full faith and enthusiasm into this new and unexplored field. That they should frequently have fallen into errors was unavoidable, but it is remarkable, especially if we inquire into the history of Professor Heer’s researches, how often early conjectures as to the genus and family founded on the leaves alone were afterwards confirmed when fuller information was obtained. As examples to be found on comparing Heer’s earlier and later works, I may instance the chestnut, elm, maple, cinnamon, magnolia, buckbean or Menyanthes, vine, buckthorn (Rhamnus), Andromeda and Myrica, and among the conifers Sequoia and Taxodium. In all these cases the plants were first recognised by their leaves, and the accuracy of the determination was afterwards confirmed when the fruit, and in some instances both fruit and flower, were found attached to the same stem as the leaves.

But let us suppose that no fruit, seed, or flower had ever been met with in a fossil state, we should still have been indebted to the persevering labours of botanical palaeontologists for one of the grandest scientific discoveries for which the present century is remarkable— namely, the proofs now established of the prevalence of a mild climate and a rich arborescent flora in the arctic regions in that Miocene epoch on the history of which we are now entering. It may be useful if I endeavour to give the reader in a few words some idea of the nature of the evidence of these important conclusions, to show how far they may be safely based on fossil leaves alone. When we begin by studying the fossils of the Newer Pliocene deposits, such as those of the Upper Val d’Arno, before alluded to, we perceive that the fossil foliage agrees almost entirely with the trees and shrubs of a modern European forest. In the plants of the Older Pliocene strata of the same region we observe a larger proportion of species and genera which, although they may agree with well-known Asiatic or other foreign types, are at present wanting in Italy. If we then examine the Miocene formations of the same country, exotic forms become more abundant, especially the palms, whether they belong to the European or American fan-palms, Chamaerops and Sabal, or to the more tropical family of the date-palms or Phoenicites, which last are conspicuous in the Lower Miocene beds of Central Europe. Although we have not found the fruit or flower of these palms in a fossil state, the leaves are so characteristic that no one doubts the family to which they belong, or hesitates to accept them as indications of a warm and sub-tropical climate.

When the Miocene formations are traced to the northward of the 50th degree of latitude, the fossil palms fail us, but the greater proportion of the leaves, whether identical with those of existing European trees or of forms now unknown in Europe, which had accompanied the Miocene palms, still continue to characterise rocks of the same age, until we meet with them not only in Iceland, but in Greenland, in latitude 70 degrees N., and in Spitzbergen, latitude 78 degrees 56’, or within about 11 degrees of the pole, and under circumstances which clearly show them to have been indigenous in those regions, and not to have been drifted from the south (see Chapter 15). Not only, therefore, has the botanist afforded the geologist much palaeontological assistance in identifying distinct tertiary formations in distant places by his power of accurately discriminating the forms, veining, and microscopic structure of leaves or wood, but, independently of that exact knowledge derivable from the organs of fructification, we are indebted to him for one of the most novel, unexpected results of modern scientific inquiry.

The Miocene formations of Switzerland have been called MOLASSE, a term derived from the French MOL, and applied to a SOFT, incoherent, greenish sandstone, occupying the country between the Alps and the Jura. This molasse comprises three divisions, of which the middle one is marine, and being closely related by its shells to the faluns of Touraine, may be classed as Upper Miocene. The two others are fresh-water, the upper of which may be also grouped with the faluns, while the lower must be referred to the Lower Miocene, as defined in the next chapter.


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Chicago: Charles Lyell, "Upper Miocene Beds of Oeningen, in Switzerland.," The Student’s Elements of Geology, ed. Bryant Conant, James and trans. Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866 in The Student’s Elements of Geology Original Sources, accessed August 21, 2019,

MLA: Lyell, Charles. "Upper Miocene Beds of Oeningen, in Switzerland." The Student’s Elements of Geology, edited by Bryant Conant, James, and translated by Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866, in The Student’s Elements of Geology, Original Sources. 21 Aug. 2019.

Harvard: Lyell, C, 'Upper Miocene Beds of Oeningen, in Switzerland.' in The Student’s Elements of Geology, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Student’s Elements of Geology. Original Sources, retrieved 21 August 2019, from