We never got back to aliens. Instead, that first conversation launched a new study we’ve recently published in the International Journal of Astrobiology. Though neither of us could see it at that moment, Gavin’s penetrating question opened a window not just onto Earth’s past, but also onto our own future.
We’re used to imagining extinct civilizations in terms of the sunken statues and subterranean ruins. These kinds of artifacts of previous societies are fine if you’re only interested in timescales of a few thousands of years. But once you roll the clock back to tens of millions or hundreds of millions of years, things get more complicated.
When it comes to direct evidence of an industrial civilization—things like cities, factories, and roads—the geologic record doesn’t go back past what’s called the Quaternary period 2.6 million years ago. For example, the oldest large-scale stretch of ancient surface lies in the Negev Desert. It’s “just” 1.8 million years old—older surfaces are mostly visible in cross section via something like a cliff face or rock cuts. Go back much further than the Quaternary, and everything has been turned over and crushed to dust.
And, if we’re going back this far, we’re not talking about human civilizations anymore. Homo sapiens didn’t make their appearance on the planet until just 300,000 years or so ago. That means the question shifts to other species, which is why Gavin called the idea the Silurian hypothesis, after an old Doctor Who episode with intelligent reptiles.
So could researchers find clear evidence that an ancient species built a relatively short-lived industrial civilization long before our own? Perhaps, for example, some early mammal rose briefly to civilization building during the Paleocene epoch, about 60 million years ago. There are fossils, of course. But the fraction of life that gets fossilized is always minuscule and varies a lot depending on time and habitat. It would be easy, therefore, to miss an industrial civilization that lasted only 100,000 years—which would be 500 times longer than our industrial civilization has made it so far.
Given that all direct evidence would be long gone after many millions of years, what kinds of evidence might then still exist? The best way to answer this question is to figure out what evidence we’d leave behind if human civilization collapsed at its current stage of development.
Now that our industrial civilization has truly gone global, humanity’s collective activity is laying down a variety of traces that will be detectable by scientists 100 million years in the future. The extensive use of fertilizer, for example, keeps 7 billion people fed, but it also means we’re redirecting the planet’s flows of nitrogen into food production. Future researchers should see this in characteristics of nitrogen showing up in sediments from our era. Likewise our relentless hunger for the rare-Earth elements used in electronic gizmos. Far more of these atoms are now wandering around the planet’s surface because of us than would otherwise be the case. They might also show up in future sediments, too. Even our creation, and use, of synthetic steroids has now become so pervasive that it too may be detectable in geologic strata 10 million years from now.