What Fossils Will Our Society Leave For Future Civilizations To Discover?

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The year is 100,000 CE and a robotic archaeologist has stumbled across evidence of a collapsed civilization built millennia ago by a group of hairless ape-like creatures. Along with heaps of plastic bags and takeaway coffee cups, what fossils can they expect to find from this strange long-gone civilization? A new study has set out to answer that very question.

Reporting in the journal Anthropocene, paleobiologists at Missouri Western State University and the University of Illinois speculate on the fossil record of mammals that might be left by a global 21st-century human civilization that's come to dominate the geology and natural systems of our planet. 

As per their findings, the researchers argue that humans and the animals they have domesticated will dominate the fossil record and greatly exceed that of wild animals. It looks like future civilizations will have a lot of humans, pigs, cattle, and sheep in their natural history museums, along with a fair number of cats and dogs too.

“The chance of a wild animal becoming part of the fossil record has become very small," Roy Plotnick, lead author and UIC professor of earth and environmental sciences, said in a statement"Instead, the future mammal record will be mostly cows, pigs, sheep, goats, dogs, cats, etc., and people themselves."

Part of the study focuses on using Michigan in the US as a microcosm for studying the impact of modern civilization on an area. While the state is abundant with white-tailed deer and other fauna, over 95 percent of the biomass from vertebrate animals in the state is made up of humans and their animals, primarily cattle and pigs. However, if we go back 300 years ago, we would find a fossil record that's scarcely less influenced by human behavior. 

The team reached these findings by sifting through hundreds of scientific papers on fossilization and geology, paired with data on livestock and burial practices. The study hopes to detail how the future fossil record might be affected by the Anthropocene, a proposed (and contentious) geological epoch that speculates human behavior is now significantly shaping Earth's geology and ecosystems.

They also propose that this epoch also features a distinctive “Anthropocene corpse signal.” In other words, the way in which fossils from the 21st century might be discovered – neatly buried together in organized graves – is notably different from any other era of life on Earth. 

"These ordered graves are essentially worldwide, so you’ll be finding people’s remains the same way all over the place,” lead author Karen A. Koy, a biologist from Missouri Western State University, said in an interview with Science Magazine.

“I don’t know if 'creepy' is quite the right word, but imagine you’re an alien from another species and you find this world just covered in these bodies all laid out in a specific way all over its surface; just imagine what that would look like.”

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