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mass extinctions and technology
An old question I would like to reintroduce:
"If human beings were to become extinct in the next 500 years due to
global warming, pestilence or other catastrophe, what if anything would
remain of our civilization to reveal us to the next super species, 65
million years from now?" .
I sent a standard email to 100's of paleontologists and archaeologists
(PHd's in the USA and worldwide), asking this question to try and get some
consensus. I received approximately 60 replies. The results are as
follows. About 20 thought there would be direct evidence to reveal
us. About 30 were uncertain. About 10 thought there would be no evidence
to reveal us.
There seems to be no consensus in paleontology and archaeology.
This raises an even more interesting question. What if a civilization such
as ours existed tens of millions of years ago and we are not aware of
it? I am not suggesting human beings were present 10's of millions of
years ago, but perhaps an earlier super species.
This is an interesting hypothesis, but it would be even more interesting if
we had a method of testing it.
How to test this hypothesis:
Make the following assumptions:
1. Locatable and identifiable remains of a Pre-Human Civilization (PHC)
are mostly microscopic
Widespread microscopic remains of PHC's may exist in the sedimentary
record. The remains may be in the form of particles, persistent organic
pollutants, trace elements, isotopes or other types.
2. Given two isolated civilizations, be they isolated by time OR space,
technology will evolve along similar lines.
Common themes will prevail, with regard to the technological progression in
isolated civilizations. This is given that many natural laws, that
constrain or direct technological advancement, would be consistent between
the two systems. This assumption is more relevant to civilizations
separated by time, as the physical environment is more likely similar.
For example, if we consider two such earth civilizations, we might expect
to see non-sustainable utilization of the earths resources in both. Such
activity might include fossil fuel energy or mass extinction. We might also
expect to see the development of synthetic compounds such as persistent
It seems intuitive, that the more fundamental the technology, the more
likely it will be common to both civilizations. Whereas the more elaborate,
or obscure a technological advance, the less likely we would see it
represented in both civilizations.
3. Let us assume that mass extinction and heavily industrialized
civilization are closely related.
Let us assume the PHC would cause a gradual mass extinction, as does our
1. What to look for - Industrial tracers
A suitable industrial tracer must meet three criteria:
1. Entirely of industrial/anthropogenic/xenobiotic origin.
2. Is widespread in the atmosphere, causing it to be a detectable
contaminant of most of the earths recently laid sediments.
3. Very stable in the environment over time.
For example, we might look for organic pollutants. PCB's, DDE (metabolite
of DDT) and phthalates (plasticizers) are all found in remote marine
atmosphere (Report in Science, p163, Vol. 211, 1981). These compounds are
all exclusively industrial in origin. DDE and certain congeners of PCB are
also very stable in the environment.
2. Where to look
Let us assume the PHC would cause a mass extinction, as does our existing
civilization. The target sediment will surround and incorporate extinction
event sediment. For example, KT Boundary clay. A good place to look might
be cores from the ocean drilling program (ODP) as they are less likey
contaminated (see ODP leg 171B -
3. The experiment
Examine extinction event sediment for presence of an industrial tracer
(IT). ie. most environmental labs can detect a wide range of anthropogenic
pollutants down to parts per trillion. If IT is present in extinction
event sediment, this will indicate a PHC.
Industrial tracer levels should be checked in sediment from random sites in
Any suggestions from the list greatly appreciated.
Southern Cross University
50% of the worlds flora and fauna could be on the path to extinction within
the next 100 years - National Geographic