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The study of strata is called stratigraphy, and using a few basic principles, it is possible to work out the relative ages of rocks.

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The principle of superposition builds on the principle of original horizontality.The age of the fossil must be determined so it can be compared to other fossil species from the same time period.Understanding the ages of related fossil species helps scientists piece together the evolutionary history of a group of organisms.The principle states that any geologic features that cut across strata must have formed after the rocks they cut through (Figures 2 and 3).

According to the principle of original horizontality, these strata must have been deposited horizontally and then titled vertically after they were deposited.In addition to being tilted horizontally, the layers have been faulted (dashed lines on figure).Applying the principle of cross-cutting relationships, this fault that offsets the layers of rock must have occurred after the strata were deposited.For example, based on the primate fossil record, scientists know that living primates evolved from fossil primates and that this evolutionary history took tens of millions of years.