The Fossilized Machines Humans Will Leave Behind

In the debut issue of a new journal called The Anthropocene Review, University of Leicester geologist Jan Zalasiewicz leads a team of five writers in discussing the gradual fossilization of human artifacts, including industrial machines, everyday objects, and even whole cities. They refer to these as "technofossils," and they're destined to form a whole new layer of the earth's surface.

As Mark Williams, a co-author on the paper, explained in a recent press release: "If any palaeontologists were to appear on—or visit—the Earth in the far geological future, they will think the technofossil layer more weird and wonderful, by far, than dinosaur bones."

The "technofossil layer" he's referring to will be a new stratum of fossilized machinery: strange and compressed artifacts "that will range in scale from the near-continental (urban conglomerations) to small (e.g. bottles, pens) to microscopic (e.g. fly ash particles and other 'nano-artifacts')," the authors explain in the paper.

The authors add some theoretical context, illustrating the various scales at which this fossilization will occur, even, at one point, suggesting that deep mining tunnels are candidates for future fossilization, and that "deep crustal penetration," as they describe it, might even be one of the last traces left behind by human beings. The science fiction-like implication here—that, on other rocky planets, we might be better off looking for deep and ancient mines preserved beneath kilometers of rock, rather than ruined cities in the dust and radiation of the planet's surface—is pretty mind-boggling, and perhaps even suggests (even if only for budding young novelists) other, more subterranean strategies for finding civilizations on other worlds.

In any case, Zalasiewicz is already widely known for his detailed geological speculations about what will happen to the cities of the world over the next several hundred million years, as places like Los Angeles are eroded away entirely and others—including delta cities such as New Orleans, Hanoi, and London, to name but a few—are gradually entombed in mud, buried, cooked, and literally fossilized. These vast and sprawling fossil landscapes will perhaps then be partially exhumed by some far-future civilization and displayed in museums, forming mysterious artifacts as impossibly ancient for those gazing upon them as the dinosaurs are for us today. [The Anthropocene Review]

Lead image via Library of Congress