Was There a Pre-Human Civilization on Earth?</h4>
The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Modern humans are 300,000 years old. For the very vast majority of the time that this planet has existed, we haven’t been here. So, what else was happening? What else could life on Earth have produced?
This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; was there a pre-human civilization on Earth?
Here’s the thing. The timeline of Earth as a whole, isn’t actually that well known. Scientists and archeologists can look at layers of rock - strata - to travel back through what’s known as deep time, to try to understand what might have come before… but it’s not exactly an exact discipline. With every stratum of geological material, there’s always the chance that something incredible, solid and undeniable may be dug up… but the research rarely falls that way. Instead, academics (on the ground and in the lab) are tasked with trying to make sense of often tiny fragments of history, where most of what once surrounded it has been whittled down and eroded away. Since the advent of radiocarbon dating, we have at least achieved a greater than ever level of accuracy in positioning what we find on the timeline of stuff that came before us - up to a point. But the business of archaeology - of delving far, far further into the past than written, recorded history allows us to go - is still somewhat shrouded in mystery.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that many have asked a variation on the same question; how do we know what came before us? Or, how do we know that an intelligent “something” didn’t come before us? With so many literal billions of years stretching out from our time back to the beginning of time on this planet, and with so much of that essentially unaccounted for, can we ever be certain that we really are the most advanced life that Earth has ever seen? According to some - mostly alternate theorists rather than mainstream academics - no, we probably can’t.
Arguably the most famous exploration of this is the Silurian Hypothesis, put forward in a 2018 paper by the astrophysicist Adam Frank and the NASA Earth Scientist Gavin Schmidt. We’ve taken a dive into the Silurian way of thinking in another previous video, so be sure to check that out after this. But, for now, here’s the recap. First off, the term “Silurian” is taken directly from a race of alien creatures in the long-running BBC sci-fi series, “Doctor Who”... which offers some indication of where we’re going here. Broadly, the hypothesis argues that direct evidence of a pre-human civilization - from, say, 350 million years ago or prior, i.e. before the dinosaurs - would more than likely no longer exist. While it perhaps doesn’t feel like it whenever you’re exploring a museum that’s packed with bones… definitely, identifiably fossilized remains are actually quite a rare thing. And the further back in history you travel, the rarer they become. This is due to a number of factors, including the effects of Earth’s atmosphere, erosion, the near total exposure of Earth’s surface, and due to our planet’s tectonic activity. Earth is essentially always recycling itself. And, while this is a process that literally does take millions of years, we have many millions of years to play with on a planet that’s 4.5 billion years old. In short, none - or very, very little - of Earth’s topmost, accessible layers, the crust and the surface, have been here for even half of its lifetime, or a quarter, let alone for the whole entire show. All manner of stuff has been lost along the way, so why not the evidence of some long-dead-but-once-advanced civilization, as well?
For Frank and Schmidt, perhaps our only hope would be in searching for indirect signs that something was here. If, indeed, anything was ever here. And here, again, is where that element of mystery inevitably takes root. Because, instead of clear and direct artifacts - things that you’d actually see and hold - there would likely be only secondary traces of what came before. This means things like chemical imbalances in soil to suggest a sustained period of global warming possibly brought on by industrialization. Or deeply buried traces of still radioactive nuclear waste, from a previous nuclear age long, long before our current one. Neither of those things would constitute a smoking gun; irrefutable proof that something really was here before us. But should we find something like weird soil or ancient nuclear material, then questions could be raised.
So, have we found anything like that up until now? With nuclear waste, the answer is no. Or at least nothing that we’ve identified. And, in fact, we’re only just beginning to wrestle with the exact opposite end of that conundrum - how to properly dispose of the nuclear waste that we’ve created, in order to ensure that any future groups after us don’t accidentally dig it all back up. It’s a niche but interesting field, involving - among other things - research into what kinds of symbol would work universally, even thousands of years into the future, to warn any unsuspecting society away from any location that had (for us) served as a nuclear waste dump. With investigations into unusual soil traces, however, there are some suggestions that we might already know of some contenders. And, actually, from not that long ago at all, relatively speaking.
The Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis is perhaps one of the most controversial alternate theories of modern times. The Younger Dryas, itself, is a mostly uncontested global cooling event around 12,900 years ago. Research has shown that, for whatever reason, temperatures on Earth did drop at that time. The impact hypothesis is, then, the thornier issue… as it argues that the cool off was caused by a long-term and significant shower of asteroid material, striking all across North and South America, and Asia, at roughly the same time. As evidence, advocates claim that soil samples reveal materials and measures consistent with an asteroid strike… although conventional science has never concurred. That said, there isn’t a universally agreed-upon, conventional explanation, either. The Younger Dryas is still something of a mystery. And so, perhaps predictably, there have been some efforts made to connect it to some form of ancient civilization that mainstream history doesn’t acknowledge.
The Scottish writer Graham Hancock is a leading advocate for the impact theory. While some that follow it have further mused that the supposed asteroid may have been what kickstarted human civilization as we know it today, with environmental changes all over the world leading to the mass end of hunter-gatherer lifestyles and the near-total uptake of settled, farming communities. Again, mainstream science almost universally considers the impact hypothesis to be unfounded pseudoscience. What’s bizarre, however, is that there are other, far more outlandish theories out there, too… arguing that if today’s human traits came to the fore just a few thousand years ago, travel back millions of years and we could (potentially) find something that’s truly and significantly different.
Writing for “The Atlantic” in 2019, Peter Brannen outlines one especially eye-opening thought experiment, as a means to demonstrate his view that human civilization isn’t its own epoch on the timeline of Earth - as many contemporary models claim - it’s merely a fleeting event. Brannen asks us to consider the end of the dinosaurs, and how much we can ever truly know about what happened during that period. He writes, “If, in the final 7,000 years of their reign, dinosaurs became hyper intelligent, built a civilization, started asteroid mining, and did so for centuries,”... and if they did that all before missing the asteroid that would ultimately kill them, then we would never know. According to Brannen, “it would be virtually impossible to tell”.
Now, this is presented as a thought experiment only. Brannen never suggests that it’s what he really thinks might’ve happened. But, what’s your verdict on the principles behind what he’s saying? Not even the most long-lasting nuclear remnants would (or could) remain for the sixty-five million years post-dinosaurs on Earth. While, again, analysis of geological strata can only tell us so much. We are essentially certain (based on fossil records) that the dinosaurs could never have evolved in this way, and would never have needed to. But the truth is that there are always massive portions of history - tens of thousands, even millions of years - that we simply cannot account for in any kind of detail. And so, we’re back to that same old feeling of encountering a massive and unending mystery.
Was there a pre-human civilization on Earth? So far there’s nothing by way of conclusive evidence to suggest that yes, there was. But perhaps the question taps into a much broader, more complete line of enquiry. Because, can we ever really know exactly what happened on our planet before us? Could we ever hope to accurately timeline everything that took place pre-human? The answer here is no. The complete history of the world is just far too great.