James Felton

Silurian hypothesis: Could an advanced civilization have lived on Earth millions of years before humans?

If advanced species lived on Earth before us, do we know? Image credit: ManuMata / Shutterstock.com

in Doctor Who, There is a strange species called Silurians – technologically advanced humanoid reptiles that lived long before humans, and hid and were basically undetected again until everyone’s favorite alien creature came into their phone box. So far, not science. However, in 2018 two Cambridge University scientists named their paper – Silurian hypothesis: Can an industrial civilization be detected in the geological record? – After fictional genres.

Published in the Journal of Astrobiology, the research paper does not argue that a species was technologically advanced long before humanity, but rather suggested the intriguing hypothetical question of whether it would be possible to find “geological fingerprints” of a past civilization that expired millions of years ago.

“One of the key questions in evaluating the likelihood of finding such a civilization is to understand how often, given that life has arisen and that some species are intelligent, does an industrial civilization evolve?” They write on paper.

“Humans are the only example we know of, and our industrial civilization has (so far) lasted nearly 300 years (since, say, the beginning of mass production methods). That is a fraction of the time we were a species, and a very small fraction of the time that we There was complex life on Earth.

“This short period of time raises the obvious question of whether this could ever have happened.”

In addition to being an interesting hypothesis to think about, seeking to answer the question can also help us search for signs of advanced civilizations on exoplanets. As the research paper points out, humans have left remarkable marks on the planet that will surely last for many years in our (relatively short) time to change the planet’s climate and ecosystems. However, this does not mean that these changes will be detectable millions of years from now. Indeed, the record that we leave – for example, in sediments – may be only a few centimeters thick. This may be true even if we survive much longer than our present age.

“The longer human civilization persists, the greater the signal one would expect in the record,” the team wrote. “However, the longer a civilization persists, the more sustainable its practices need to become in order to survive. The more sustainable a society is (for example in power generation, manufacturing or agriculture), the smaller the footprint on the rest of the planet. But the smaller the footprint is. The reference to the geological record will be reduced.”

The team discusses what other signs we might leave to a species millions of years from now (or perhaps be left to us). Some will be indistinguishable from naturally occurring phenomena such as hypoxic events in the Cretaceous and Jurassic oceans – but others will be clear signs that we were here, utterly devastated.

The team wrote: “We expect that some of the specific tracers will be unique, particularly fixed synthetic particles, plastics, and (potentially) long-term radioactive fallout in the event of a nuclear disaster.

“In the absence of these markers, the uniqueness of the event can be seen in many relatively independent fingerprints rather than as a coherent set of changes associated with a single geophysical issue.”

The team doesn’t provide a definitive answer in the research paper, but suggests that if other ancient advanced species could be found, they would be discovered by exploring elemental and compositional anomalies in the sediment record.

“While we strongly doubt the existence of any prior industrial civilization before our own, asking the question in a formal way that clearly shows what such a civilization might look like raises its own useful questions related to both astrobiology and Anthropocene studies,” we conclude.

“We hope this paper will serve as a prompt to improve the limitations of the hypothesis so that in the future we will be in a better position to answer the title question.”

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