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Before the Standard Model (SM) was developed in the 1970s (the key elements of the Standard Model known as quarks were proposed by Gell-Mann and Zweig in 1964), physicists observed hundreds of different kinds of particles in particle accelerators. These were organized into relationships on their physical properties in a largely ad-hoc system of hierarchies, not entirely unlike the way taxonomy grouped animals based on their physical features. Not surprisingly, the huge number of particles was referred to as the "particle zoo".
The Standard Model, which is now the prevailing model of particle physics, dramatically simplified this picture by showing that most of the observed particles were mesons, which are combinations of two quarks, or baryons which are combinations of three quarks, plus a handful of other particles. The particles being seen in the ever-more-powerful accelerators were, according to the theory, typically nothing more than combinations of these quarks.