What Future Humans Will Learn From Our Remains

Geologists studying the Anthropocene will unearth a dark layer of "technofossils" and radioactive fallout.

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Millions of years from now, a future geologist will be digging deep into the Earth, seeking the truth about his notorious sapiens heritage. Excavating far beneath the year 100,000, scraping past 10,000, he’ll hit on 2016 and think: What the actual fuck happened here?

A recent paper written by researchers with the British Geological Survey argues that we’re in the midst of creating a new geological epoch, characterized entirely by the layers of entirely novel human trash we’re leaving behind.

The history of the Earth is written in its layers. We’ve exhumed evidence of long-dead wildlife, massive shifts in climate, and devastating natural disasters — all hidden in the layers of sediments that have built up over time. The differences in those layers have allowed us to lump our past into epochs, beginning with the Archean era 4.6 billion years ago all the way up to the most recent Holocene. Although these periods are geologically distinct, they all had one thing in common: The sediments left behind were all recognizably terrestrial.

That isn’t the case anymore.

Our future geologist isn’t just going to find decaying plant matter from the few species we’ve got left. By and large, the authors reported in the journal Science, he’s going to find “technofossils” — the elemental aluminum, concrete, and plastics we use to produce our MacBooks and Samsung Galaxies and the factories that manufacture them. According to the study, those things are already piling up. And unlike the remains left behind in previous epochs, which were largely confined to the areas in which they lived and died, technofossils will be found practically everywhere.

The changes we’ve made to the atmosphere — the glass to our greenhouse — will also wind up in the ground. The fossil fuels we’ve been burning since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution have filled the atmosphere with black carbon, inorganic ash, and other carbon-based particulates. All of it comes down eventually, together with the remains of leaded gasoline, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and — lest we forget — fallout from nuclear testing. We will have the privileged distinction of being the first to write artificial radionuclides — hot isotopes of carbon and plutonium, like those left over from the “bomb spike” of 1952 to 1980 — into our Earth’s sedimentary history.

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What might be most puzzling for our geologist of the future might be the abundance of human technological concoctions and the distinct lack of, you know, life. Sure, there’ll be a lot of sapiens remains in the ground, but there won’t be much of anything else — at least compared to any point before the year 1500, when extinction rates began to skyrocket. Like our trash, any wildlife still trudging along will also be more globally dispersed, as farming, fishing, and “transglobal species invasions” leave their permanent and unprecedented mark on the planet.

The term “Anthropocene” — roughly, “the age of man” — was coined in only 2000. It gets thrown around informally in the media to refer to the current epoch, in the same way the term “millennials” is used to denote something vaguely real. It still hasn’t been adopted as a formal geological term, but, as the authors of the Science paper argue, there’s little reason not to do so — considering we’re already knee-deep in the trash we’re about to leave behind. This epoch will, no doubt, leave one very clear message in the dirt: Homo sapiens changed the world more drastically and more rapidly than any other global force before it. What’s less clear is what we’ll be buried under, long after technology goes bust, extinction speeds ahead, and climate change dunks us — and all of our trash — into the sea.

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