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Comic illustration of previous industrial civilizations on Earth.

We think we're the first advanced earthlings - but how do we really know?


Imagine if, many millions of years ago, dinosaurs drove cars through cities of mile-high buildings. A preposterous idea, right? Over the course of tens of millions of years, however, all of the direct evidence of a civilization -- its artifacts and remains -- gets ground to dust. How do we really know, then, that there weren't previous industrial civilizations on Earth that rose and fell long before human beings appeared?

Evidence Other than Artifacts

It's a compelling thought experiment, and one that Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, and Gavin Schmidt, the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, take up in a paper published in the International Journal of Astrobiology.

"Gavin and I have not seen any evidence of another industrial civilization," Frank explains. But by looking at the deep past in the right way, a new set of questions about civilizations and the planet appear: What geological footprints do civilizations leave? Is it possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record once it disappears from the face of its host planet? "These questions make us think about the future and the past in a much different way, including how any planetary-scale civilization might rise and fall."

Anthropocene period is the period when fossil fuels will dictate the footprint humans leave on Earth. (Image: CC0)

Anthropocene period is the period when fossil fuels will dictate the footprint humans leave on Earth. (Image: CC0)

In what they deem the "Silurian Hypothesis," Frank and Schmidt define a civilization by its energy use. Human beings are just entering a new geological era that many researchers refer to as the Anthropocene, the period in which human activity strongly influences the climate and environment. In the Anthropocene, fossil fuels have become central to the geological footprint humans will leave behind on Earth. By looking at the Anthropocene's imprint, Schmidt and Frank examine what kinds of clues future scientists might detect to determine that human beings existed. In doing so, they also lay out evidence of what might be left behind if industrial civilizations like ours existed millions of years in the past.

Fossil Fuel Imprint

Human beings began burning fossil fuels more than 300 years ago, marking the beginnings of industrialization. The researchers note that the emission of fossil fuels into the atmosphere has already changed the carbon cycle in a way that is recorded in carbon isotope records. Other ways human beings might leave behind a geological footprint include:

  • Global warming, from the release of carbon dioxide and perturbations to the nitrogen cycle from fertilizers
  • Agriculture, through greatly increased erosion and sedimentation rates
  • Plastics, synthetic pollutants, and even things such as steroids, which will be geochemically detectable for millions, and perhaps even billions, of years
  • Nuclear war, if it happened, which would leave behind unusual radioactive isotopes

Industrialized town in Germany, circa 1870. (Public Domain)

Industrialized town in Germany, circa 1870. (Public Domain)

"As an industrial civilization, we're driving changes in the isotopic abundances because we're burning carbon," Frank says. "But burning fossil fuels may actually shut us down as a civilization. What imprints would this or other kinds of industrial activity from a long dead civilization leave over tens of millions of years?"

The Astrobiological Perspective

The questions raised by Frank and Schmidt are part of a broader effort to address climate change from an astrobiological perspective, and a new way of thinking about life and civilizations across the universe. Looking at the rise and fall of civilizations in terms of their planetary impacts can also affect how researchers approach future explorations of other planets.

"We know early Mars and, perhaps, early Venus were more habitable than they are now, and conceivably we will one day drill through the geological sediments there, too," Schmidt says. "This helps us think about what we should be looking for."

Schmidt points to an irony, however: if a civilization is able to find a more sustainable way to produce energy without harming its host planet, it will leave behind less evidence that it was there.

"You want to have a nice, large-scale civilization that does wonderful things but that doesn't push the planet into domains that are dangerous for itself, the civilization," Frank says. "We need to figure out a way of producing and using energy that doesn't put us at risk."

That said, the earth will be just fine, Frank says. It's more a question of whether humans will be.

Pripyat town square. Abandoned ghost town in northern Ukraine. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Pripyat town square. Abandoned ghost town in northern Ukraine. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Can we create a version of civilization that doesn't push the earth into a domain that's dangerous for us as a species?

"The point is not to 'save the earth,'" says Frank. "No matter what we do to the planet, we're just creating niches for the next cycle of evolution. But, if we continue on this trajectory of using fossil fuels and ignoring the climate change it drives, we human beings may not be part of Earth's ongoing evolution."

Top image: Comic illustration of previous industrial civilizations on Earth. Credit: University of Rochester illustration/Michael Osadciw

The article ‘We think we're the first advanced earthlings - but how do we really know?’ was originally published on Science Daily.

Source: University of Rochester. "We think we're the first advanced earthlings -- but how do we really know?" ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 April 2018.


Gavin A. Schmidt, Adam Frank. The Silurian hypothesis: would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record? International Journal of Astrobiology, 2018; 1 DOI: 10.1017/S1473550418000095



Pete Wagner's picture

“Nuclear war, if it happened, which would leave behind unusual radioactive isotopes.”

Adding the zero back to Plato’s timeline puts the destruction of Atlantis at 115k BC, the start of the Ice Age, which we know came on suddenly, and created the bogs of today.  So to investigate and understand that possible event, a nuclear bombing as suggested by Plato’s text (described as volcanoes and earthquakes), in the now dry valley of the Richat Structure – a lush estuary at the time, is critical to any and all understanding of ancient history.  We have a date (115k BC), and a place (Richat Structure), and a legend, which is very plausible.  It’s now just a matter of getting out there, digging, and doing the forensics, to confirm if in fact the place was bombed into a mud flat, as per Plato.

Then from there, many things can be cleared up.  As for the ancients reusing hydrocarbons in some way, the question is would they need to?  Invention is the mother of necessity, and if something is not needed, particularly something difficult and dirty, it make no sense.  We do know the ancients made use of gravity-based water pumps (i.e., pyramids) to pull aquifer water up to the surface.  All pyramids were built over primitive wells, probably in a progressive way, not all at once, to support their water needs.  And we know how impressive and beautiful the ancient megalith stoneworks would have been, prior to them becoming ruins (probably during the same ‘Atlantis event’), ...which suggests that at least they were using iron implements (long rusted away over the tens of thousands of years), and of course much of the non-ferrous metal and ceramic creations of that era have been recovered, extant, along with bones, mummified remains, and even some preserved wood.  BUT NO PLASTICS! This suggests that they were NOT using hydrocarbons like we do today, probably for the reasons that we also SHOULD NOT be using them.  But unlike ancient society, our modern civilization is NOT driven by beauty and respect for the Earth, but power and greed, which is a very dirty combination, rooted in the mentality of the black-headed tyrants that got their start in the ruins of ancient Sumer, long after the demise of the aboriginal Atlantean culture that originally built all the beautiful megalith stoneworks.  To the Atlanteans, crude oil was probably seen as the sewage of Earth, where the only concern was ensuring an absolute separation between it and the clean water aquifers.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Don't make me laugh. We would never find and evidence of a previous civilization used fossil fuels. All the carbon dioxide would be consumed by all the plants on earth and by the time we find it, it would be oil coal or gas again. Or have you never heard of Photosynthesis? And if they build with artificial some like us that would be crumbled to dust again. Steel will rust and be blown away by the wind.

There is a great deal of ancient evidence that's just sitting there waiting to be evaluated. Add what has been misinterpreted to what has been ignored to reveal the truth.

Although I think modern humans have been around for longer than 100,000 years I don't believe in lost civilizations like Atlantis or Mu. I do wonder though if it hadn't been for the very long reign of the dinosaurs could an advanced race like us have appeared on earth c.250 million years ago? If so we'd either have destroyed ourselves long ago or just maybe we'd have populated our region of the galaxy, where in all that time our descendants on different planets would have evolved very differently from each other.

Conundrum. If a previous civilization walked softly upon the earth and did not trash it, they would have survived. If they did what we are doing they would have died out but left a discernible footprint.

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