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Earth Science

Was There a Civilization On Earth Before Humans? (theatlantic.com) 457

Adam Frank, writing for The Atlantic: 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 farther 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. [...] 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.
Mr. Frank, along with Gavin Schmidt, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, have published their research on the subject [PDF].
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Was There a Civilization On Earth Before Humans?

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    and the Flintstones.
    • by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @03:24PM (#56490207) Homepage

      Layers and layers of compressed shoes.

      • Crab people
        • taste like crab... look like people...
          • taste like crab... look like people...

            Nah... Just a race of people who haven't found a cure for crabs.

      • by jythie ( 914043 )
        Someone should craft and experiment to determine if shoes can become oil...
      • I don't think dinosaurs needed shoes. But they did leave footprints here and there. A great many of them actually. Of course, it's conceivable that they heeded their mother's advice rather better than humans do and took their shoes off when they went wading in the Mesozoic mud.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 23, 2018 @03:03PM (#56490081)

    Short answer? No. Not on any scale like our current civilization.

    Evidence: the coal is still here for us to burn. :P And there's no plastic in lake and sea sediments. :P

    • by DavenH ( 1065780 )
      Plastic wouldn't stick around for eons when bacteria are quickly evolving to eat it up. But where is the space-junk?
      • by jwhyche ( 6192 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @03:16PM (#56490149) Homepage

        But where is the space-junk?

        You are assuming they existed long enough to reach a space age. They may have just reached the age of steam then collapsed. The fact they they failed to do something about the incoming asteroid would support this clam.

        There is another answer too. If they did reach the space age they might have simply been more tidy about space than we are. Plus a 70+ million years is plenty of time for all orbital space junk to fall back to earth.

        • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @03:33PM (#56490283)

          But where is the space-junk?

          You are assuming they existed long enough to reach a space age. They may have just reached the age of steam then collapsed. The fact they they failed to do something about the incoming asteroid would support this clam.

          There is another answer too. If they did reach the space age they might have simply been more tidy about space than we are. Plus a 70+ million years is plenty of time for all orbital space junk to fall back to earth.

          Maybe they made it off this rock and we are the descendants of some pets that got left behind to run wild.

          • Maybe they made it off this rock and we are the descendants of some pets that got left behind to run wild.

            Interestingly enough, this roughly correlates with ancient Sumerian "mythology."

        • by angel'o'sphere ( 80593 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @03:53PM (#56490435) Journal

          We already had a steam age around 100 BC.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

          But people that time had no idea what to do with them, they used them for "spectacular tricks" like "magically" opening huge doors of temples.

          If we once had another civilization (there are plenty of plausible reasons, which I will explain in another post) then two thinks are most important to consider:
          a) coverage of the ground with dust. The city Troy has about 9 layers of destroyed buildings and rebuild buildings on top of it. And that is a town just 5000 years old. When it was found it was more or less unrecognizable covered under earth.
          b) Considering the last "ice age", sea levels where some 120m lower than now. E.g. Australia was nearly connected with Asia via a land bridge. A civilized nation most likely would have many cities at the coast. Today that would be hundreds if not thousands of miles away from the coast line. In water depths of about 120+ meters. And obviously, depending of about what time frame we are talking, last "ice age", or 6 "ice ages" ago, those areas would be covered with perhaps a mile of mud.

          No one is searching dozens or hundreds or thousands of kilometers out in the sea in depths around 150m - 60m under a mile or hundred meters of sludge. If you would try to get funding for something like this people would declare you mad. Anyway, if another Schliemann shows up and gets enough funding I could imagine we find something (note: I said imagine, not that I'm convinced or believe there is something)

          Here, two nice pictures about coast lines and sea levels: https://www.iceagenow.com/Sea_... [iceagenow.com] Note Japan, Indonesia, North America and Europe, the land bridge closing Spain with north Africa. The second picture has the outline of the coast lines during the last "ice age" as a grey frame around the green land masses.

          • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

            No simpler answer to the question than this. Rusty iron, preserved for aeons, not a problem at all. Sure the iron won't be there, but the rust will and in concentrations that would be wildly abnormal. Sure ice age settlements have been buried beneath the seas, after having been crushed and ground in the surf zone as sea level rose. Of course rapid rise, caused by periodic significant methane events, would help bury and preserve artefacts below rapid sedimentary discharge, but no real effort to plot ice age

      • According to some research, certain types of plastic could last for as long as 50 million years..

        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward

          According to some research, certain types of plastic could last for as long as 50 million years..

          They should charge extra for that.

      • by sdinfoserv ( 1793266 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @04:20PM (#56490627) Homepage
        No, but simple things like glass from a leaded glass window would survive. As a matter of fact ALL our resources that we extract from the ground were intact when we started mining them. So unless all they used was trees and grass, we are the only advanced society.
        • by Immerman ( 2627577 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @04:52PM (#56490819)

          Glass rarely survives intact after even a century of neglect. After millions of years of earthquakes, hailstorms, wild-fires, hurricanes,etc,etc,etc - how would you recognize leaded sand in amongst all the other grains? Metals rust, plastics degrade. Hard stone is about the only thing we could reasonably expect to survive intact.

          Mining tunnels would probably be one of the few things we could reasonably expect to find evidence of - and you'd have to be looking really hard to recognize the telltale geologic anomalies distinguishing a tunnel that collapsed millions of years ago.

      • by Immerman ( 2627577 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @04:41PM (#56490751)

        Why would you assume space junk would stay up for many millions of years? Anything remotely close to Earth would have long since deorbitted due to atmospheric and/or magnetic drag. Even out near geostationary, millions of years of perturbations by the moon's gravity and solar wind could easily have destabilized the orbits.

      • "Plastic wouldn't stick around for eons when bacteria are quickly evolving to eat it up."

        Plastic is a lot less biodegradable than wood and there is plenty of fossil wood -- some as old as Devonian (380 Million years ago--give or take) if you take the trouble to look for it along ancient-sea margins and in ancient lakebeds. Even if the plastic eating bacteria are efficient and anaerobic, any plastic objects entombed in mud would likely leave distinctive molds in the sediment.

  • Creatures are pretty much universally threatened by their own excrement bacteria.

    Any civilization would need to deal with shit. Porcelain is a technology ideally suited. It would be discovered and used. Ceramics were used by humans for chamber pots very early in our history.

    The fossil record would contain a large number of intelligent dinosaur toilets, if they had existed.

    • by DavenH ( 1065780 )
      From TA, it seems unlikely to ever hit on an old civilization's urban areas:
      "the current area of urbanization is less than 1% of the Earth’s surface (Schneider et al., 2009), and exposed sections and drilling sites for pre-Quaternary surfaces are orders of magnitude less as fractions of the original surface."
      • Re: Toilets (Score:5, Insightful)

        by c6gunner ( 950153 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @03:40PM (#56490327)

        the current area of urbanization is less than 1% of the Earthâ(TM)s surface (Schneider et al., 2009), and exposed sections and drilling sites for pre-Quaternary surfaces are orders of magnitude less as fractions of the original surface

        And yet we keep finding buried and hidden signs of civilisations in the middle of the Amazon, and fossilized remnants of long extinct species in the middle of Africa.

        They're also ignoring that any reasonable civilisation would have been likely to build their urban centres in many of the same locations we have; near water. This isn't a cultural preference; it's a huge logistical advantage. Given that we've been doing a hell of a lot more excavating near coastlines than we have in the middle of the Canadian tundra, the odds of finding signs of a past culture are WAY higher than the stated 1%.

        • by DavenH ( 1065780 )
          They didn't state 1% odds; they said 1% of earth is currently urbanized, and they implied much less chance of finding a similar 1% coverage by our exposure to old earth surfaces.
          Also near-water locations aren't static over millions of years.
          The hidden signs of civilizations in jungles are found because they are on our present geological surface, and can be exposed with LIDAR scans.
          • They implied wrong.

            1% of the earth's surface is still a hell of a lot of area. It would be a much smaller fraction of the geological record, but we've taken _many_ millions (likely billions) of samples. You only need to find a one part of it.

        • Re: Toilets (Score:4, Insightful)

          by swb ( 14022 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @03:50PM (#56490401)

          We already knew about a lot of the "hidden" Amazonian civilizations, it was knowing where to look that allowed geospatial tools to be used to notice how much larger the scale was. Even if you accept the idea that they were well-hidden, they've only been gone, what, 2000 years or so? What would finding them be like if they had been gone millions of years ago?

          Building near water is obvious, but this assumes that water has always been where it is now. Wild rivers change course dramatically on a nearly annual basis, and over millions of years they may have radically changed course in addition to their flood planes accelerating the destruction of any evidence they once existed. Cities on oceans would have had millions of years of exposure to erosion, storms, tidal action, etc.

          I'm glad you're so sure of your conclusions. Maybe you could write the paper's authors and share your analysis and relevant research experience.

        • Presumably civilisation would involve large animals in large numbers, which is what humans are doing and which is quite unnatural (modulo the part when humans themselves are natural, of course). So skeletal finds themselves should be suspicious even if we didn't know in advance what animal in particular should be the intelligent one.
        • Near water isn't really a static thing [wikipedia.org]. Pangaea started to break up only about 175M years ago.

          What I think is more interesting there is if Pangaea was less of a host to civilized life than the modern day continents, simply by virtue of the fact that presumably non-specialized life would only have found it easy to flourish in a band around the edge.

        • Re: Toilets (Score:4, Insightful)

          by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @04:28PM (#56490681)

          They're also ignoring that any reasonable civilisation would have been likely to build their urban centres in many of the same locations we have; near water.

          Since they're talking about civilizations that may have occurred tens to hundreds of millions of years in the past, the likelihood that THEIR "near water" is not only not the same places as OUR "near water", but it's unlikely that their "near water" is even on the surface of the Earth.

          Do note the part about the oldest surface currently existing on the planet is less than two million years old....

          And this ignoring small, recent things like sea level changes. Just in the last million years, sea level has changed by many meters, many times, what with the advance and retreat of the glaciations that are part and parcel of the Ice Age we're still in (yes, technically, we're still in an Ice Age. An Interglacial in the Ice Age, but an Ice Age nonetheless - until the continents rearrange themselves so that the Arctic Ocean isn't, we'll be in an Ice Age)....

    • So, we're living in the collective toilet of that early micro-organism that evolved to produce oxygen. It's just so big we don't see it.
  • If the headline is a yes/no question, the answer is "No".

    If the answer was "Yes", then the headline wouldn't be a question. By making it a question, the headline writer gets to have the headline be truthful while being much more interesting than the equivalent statement.

  • What industrial process generates as a byproduct, concentrations of iridium and carbon cenospheres; 64 million years ago?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 23, 2018 @03:10PM (#56490121)

    There are those who believe that life here began out there, far across the universe, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans, that they may have been the architects of the Great Pyramids, or the lost civilizations of Lemuria or Atlantis. Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man who even now fight to surviveâ"somewhere beyond the heavens!

  • They were called the Krell. Had this big project, creation without instrumentality. Their own flaws consumed them overnight once they turned on their big machine.

  • Randall Carlson and Graham Hancock have been talking about this for years, though much more recent "ancient civilisation". Two vids below. They're interesting. I don't know how true they are. You pays your money...

    Randall Carlson and Graham Hancock on Joe Rogan (1) [youtube.com] and Randall Carlson and Graham Hancock on Joe Rogan (2) [youtube.com].

    Then there's this documentary, where scientists tried to work out what would happen if all Humans suddenly vanished [youtube.com]. Stuff disappears pretty fast (on geological timescales). Two th
  • by Ziest ( 143204 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @03:15PM (#56490147) Homepage

    The place to look for civilizations that pre-date us is, of course, Antarctica. We really have not done much exploring of the Transantarctic Mountains. Who knows what might be found there.

    • by Bigbutt ( 65939 )

      Madness

    • by DoktorMidnight ( 3469647 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @03:36PM (#56490301)
      There was one expedition to the area decades ago by Miskatonic University, but it was disastrous. There were no survivors of the original expedition; the only two men who returned were from the rescue team dispatched by the University. They came back ranting about shifting eyes in the darkness and kept repeating a nonsense sound: "tekeli-li." There have been no other attempts made to explore that place afterwards. Even if the rumors of a great and terrible city, ancient beyond all measure, are true, we only have the word of two men barely clinging to their sanity after being exposed to one of the most extreme environments on Earth.

      No, there is nothing to be gained by exploring the Transantarctic range. There is nothing but madness in those mountains.
    • The place to look for civilizations that pre-date us is, of course, Antarctica. We really have not done much exploring of the Transantarctic Mountains. Who knows what might be found there.

      I've got a few fiction recommendations along those lines...

      Check out James Rollins' [wikipedia.org] novel Subterranean [wikipedia.org]. Perhaps not his best work, but it was the first one of his I read and got me hooked on him and I've enjoyed his other action-adventure novels, including his SIGMA Force series.

      A good military action-adventure read is Matt Reilly's [wikipedia.org] novel Ice Station [wikipedia.org] -- which I'm still hoping someone will make into a movie. I've enjoyed Matt's other novels as well.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I think the more interesting variation of the question isn't, was there a civilization like ours.. industrial, nuclear, "advanced". Most signs point to no... but were there any pre-industrial civilizations that didn't make it and died out? They wouldn't have used up the earth's resources like we have. They wouldn't have produced advanced materials that would survive millions of years. They wouldn't have left a layer of radioactive material to be preserved in the fossil record.

    A pre-industrial civilizati

  • Huh? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by beheaderaswp ( 549877 ) * on Monday April 23, 2018 @03:18PM (#56490173)

    Well if we can still find fossils of dinosaurs many millions of years old that were not "crushed to dust" wouldn't a city leave some trace?

    I find both the Drake equation and this hypothesis to be faulty.

    The Drake equation outputs whatever you decide to plug into it. It is a fine mathematical example of manipulating non-scientific people since the input to the equation is the supposition. Any faulty supposition gives an erroneous output. We do not know what the input should be. Therefor we do not have an accurate output.

    The supposition that an entire city would leave *nothing* when the bones of ancient animals can be found is a faulty presupposition.

    • Fossilization of remains is a pretty rare occurrence. Such preservation requires very specific conditions. As another poster mentioned Dinosaurs were around for longer than they've been extinct, tens of millions of years ago. Yet finding new deposits of fossilized dinosaur remains is newsworthy. Then you have things like the Coelacanth that we thought went extinct with the dinosaurs because we couldn't find newer fossils. Turns out Coelacanth's are still around, they just weren't in the right places to leav

  • We would know it. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Dallas May ( 4891515 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @03:20PM (#56490195)

    If there was a global industrialized civilization like ours 1,000,000 years ago, we would know. Even if all their foundations had long been covered by eons and crushed to dust, we would still see the impact of the civilization in our geology. Humans in the last 100 years have permanently changed millions of square miles of millions of centuries of geologic record. If a species before us had that kind of impact, we would know.

    Now, if there was some species of dinosaur at some time that lived in small mud-hut villiages, I can't see that we would ever be lucky enough to find evidence of that.

    • Re:We would know it. (Score:5, Informative)

      by DavenH ( 1065780 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @03:52PM (#56490421)
      The paper addresses this geological impact paradox. For the signal to be obvious in the geological record, it has to be sustained, but for a civilization to persist long enough to be obvious in geological time scales, they have to be in equilibrium with the environment.
      • The paper addresses this geological impact paradox. For the signal to be obvious in the geological record, it has to be sustained, but for a civilization to persist long enough to be obvious in geological time scales, they have to be in equilibrium with the environment.

        If you're talking about bronze age or even iron age civilizations sure. But the summary mentioned industrial civilizations, perhaps something technologically equivalent with ourselves, in which case they're going to use a lot of resources, and that's going to show up both in the weird stuff deposited into that geological layer, but also the stuff they mined from lower layers.

        I did a really brief skimming of the paper, they seemed to think that if an ancient advanced civilization was out there so would the e

  • We have easy direct evidence from ice cores accounting for last 3 million years and numerous direct and indirect proxies going back at least 2 billion years.

    • oh the 2.7 million year ice cores were found at the end of last year, but were they analyzed yet for civilization's traces? I think not

  • We are pretty sure there was no other modern civ, because otherwise we would have had evidence of coal mining, oil reclamation, all sort of stuff which would have been exploited, but we find no evidence of. We can be reasonably sure there was no iron age using civ (and metal generally), for the same reason, the mining would have left trace, if only in where we would expect to find metal ore and don't find it - because it has been mined. Now orogeny/subduction could have created some at plate separation, but
    • No, that mining evidence would have been crushed away too. We don't mine that deeply, 2.5 miles is a limit we've never crossed

    • by angel'o'sphere ( 80593 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @05:21PM (#56491001) Journal

      You are quite wrong.

      We basically have no evidence for anything we did not explicitly look for.

      Consider the last "Ice Age", North America under an ice shield of about 3 miles thickness. Glaciers flowing outward to the oceans. If there was a "modern building" made from concrete and steel it would have been grinded to dust, it would been smeared over hundreds if not thousands of km of landscape. There is not real a chance in hell to find anything from it.
      If there was a civilization on the level of ancient Egypt or even steam age UK before the previous ice age, in the area of the ice shield, then absolutely nothing, except lost tools in a cave, would have survived the ice age. I doubt a WWII battle ship, like Prince Eugene, which survived several nuke strikes, swimming, would have survived getting dragged by a glacier 3000 miles far to the sea under giga tonnes of ice.

      A modern city like Las Vegas would have been smeared to dust. Nothing left. A city like New York would be somewhere 1000 miles out in the sea in minimum (originally) 150 yards deep water, probably covered by 50 yards of sludge or more (and grinded to pieces as well).

      On the other hand, we found Oezi ... a stone age man inside of a glacier when he got spit out he probably was about 10k years inside (but was not on the ground and got grinded)

      So were could we find something? Somewhere where there was no ice shield. But then again, about 1000km out in the sea, modern water depth about 50 or 70 meters, 50 to 100 meters under the sludge that has deposited there.

      Good luck in searching there, I doubt we even know how to look below such deep levels of sludge, you probably need detonations and acoustic methods like in oil exploration.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @03:56PM (#56490465) Journal
    We remember their system of governance and department heads and ministers.

    Looks like they had a triumvirate headed by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. They had some ministers for water (Varunan) or fire (Agni) etc. The head of the cabinet was Indran. Lots of detail of their biographies are available.

  • I think it's fair to say that more has gone on in terms of civilizations than what we understand today.

    There are many ancient architectural and scientific mysteries that suggest greater levels of sophistication than we believe their creators could have had.

    Along with that, nature is a lot more destructive than we can imagine - I remember the first time I saw an actual Ulfbrerht sword/made from the finest steel, but reduced to basically flakes in a thousand years which suggests that time will eliminate trace

  • Fort Knox and nuclear power plants should leave behinf

    • Typo. Nuke plants and Fort Knox should leave inexplicably large and pure concentrations of lead, uranium, and gold.

  • by thinkwaitfast ( 4150389 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @04:16PM (#56490601)
    They are able to control insects remotely via telepathy to watch the humans. They've already discovered everything discoverable and now have nothing to do.
  • by Rick Schumann ( 4662797 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @04:48PM (#56490787) Journal
    Maybe if, somehow, we found enough evidence of a previous non-hominid terrestrial civilization, and what caused their downfall, then maybe, just maybe, we'd get pulled up short long enough to stop and think about some of the things we're doing right now, and how they may affect us, as a species, a hundred or few years from now.

    ..or, maybe, everyone would just say "LOL, what a bunch of losers, they blew themselves up! Glad we're smarter than that!" and just go on without missing a beat, like the arrogant animals we are.
  • by McFortner ( 881162 ) on Monday April 23, 2018 @05:04PM (#56490905)
    Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.

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