The rocks of Lummaton Quarry in Torquay
in Devon played an early role in defining the Devonian period.
The period is named after Devon, a county in southwestern England, where a controversial argument in the 1830s over the age and structure of the rocks found distributed throughout the county was eventually resolved by the definition of the Devonian period in the geological timescale. The Great Devonian Controversy was a long period of vigorous argument and counter-argument between the main protagonists of Roderick Murchison with Adam Sedgwick against Henry De la Beche supported by George Bellas Greenough. Murchison and Sedgwick won the debate and named the period they proposed as the Devonian System.
While the rock beds that define the start and end of the Devonian period are well identified, the exact dates are uncertain. According to the International Commission on Stratigraphy (Ogg, 2004), the Devonian extends from the end of the Silurian 419.2 Mya, to the beginning of the Carboniferous 358.9 Mya (in North America, the beginning of the Mississippian subperiod of the Carboniferous).
In nineteenth-century texts the Devonian has been called the "Old Red Age", after the red and brown terrestrial deposits known in the United Kingdom as the Old Red Sandstone in which early fossil discoveries were found. Another common term is "Age of the Fishes", referring to the evolution of several major groups of fish that took place during the period. Older literature on the Anglo-Welsh basin divides it into the Downtonian, Dittonian, Breconian and Farlovian stages, the latter three of which are placed in the Devonian.
The Devonian has also erroneously been characterised as a "greenhouse age", due to sampling bias: most of the early Devonian-age discoveries came from the strata of western Europe and eastern North America, which at the time straddled the Equator as part of the supercontinent of Euramerica where fossil signatures of widespread reefs indicate tropical climates that were warm and moderately humid but in fact the climate in the Devonian differed greatly during its epochs and between geographic regions. For example, during the Early Devonian, arid conditions were prevalent through much of the world including Siberia, Australia, North America, and China, but Africa and South America had a warm temperate climate. In the Late Devonian, by contrast, arid conditions were less prevalent across the world and temperate climates were more common.