How do we account for time Before the Anthropocene? In the fourth part of our series, Paul Mitchell ruminates on the geological markers and archaeological signatures of human activity and nonhuman extinctions that occurred in the eternal deep past, or before we brought "the earth itself into our history."
Hot Society and Eternity Before the Anthropocene
King Mursili the Hittite sacked Babylon in 1531 BCE. Around this same time, about 3,500 years ago, on an island off the coast of Siberia, the last living mammoth on earth dies, perhaps felled by a stone spear point. Due to a combination of a changing climate at the warm dawn of the Holocene and increasing pressure from burgeoning populations of human hunters some seven thousand years earlier, mammoths disappeared from North America and Europe, where they had lived for millions of years. (Palopoulou et al. 2015; Vartanyan et al. 2008) From a geological perspective, these events happened at the same time: when the mammoths fell, they fell on a day as 1,000 years.*
If paleontologists of the distant future were to examine the fossilized remains of the last mammoths of each continent using the most precise chemical dating techniques, then the relative differences in the radioactive or cosmogenic isotopes used to assign dates among these sites would not be sufficient to differentiate their ages. Although some chemical methods like carbon dating allow for precise dating of the recent past, the intensity of these signals decays so quickly that by 100,000 years from now, only longer-range and less accurate chemical signatures would remain legible. Simply put, at a few million years remove, the fossil and geologic record does not register difference on the order of millennia. (Faure and Mensing 2005)
Figure: These hunting lesions on mammoth bones represent the first evidence of human presence in Siberia, around 45,000 years ago. The last population of mammoths persisted on Wrangel Island, off the north coast of Russia, until about 3,500 years ago. Source: Pitulko et al. 2016, pg. 263.
Neither living nor earth-system processes mark deep time with the granular regularity sufficient to distinguish between, say, now and a few thousand years hence: for example, even if one accepts the received theory that it was an asteroid that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs at the border of the Cretaceous and the Tertiary approximately 65 million years ago, it is impossible to read from the geologic record whether that extinction was a massive die-off in which rotting, scaly bulk littered the landscape to the horizon all at once, or if the ill-fated creatures slowly dwindled over 10,000 years until populations became too fragmented and fragile to persist. (Jablonski and Chaloner 1994) Concerning the staggered demise of the mammoths across the continents, (geologically) soon there will be nothing in their bones or the sediments in which they were entombed to place one death as chronologically prior or subsequent to another, despite that today we can read the fleeting signs of a 7,000 year span among them.
So, one might then surmise that the death of that very last Siberian mammoth on the tundra of Wrangel Island only 3,500 years ago will register as functionally contemporaneous with the death of the last Northern White Rhino, an extinction which is a moral certainty in the coming decade or so. Poaching for rhino horns, a prized aphrodisiac and natural cure in some parts of Southeast Asia, forced the extinction of this species in the wild. Under the constant watch of armed guards and veterinary specialists, the final three Northern White Rhinos, old and infertile, wile away the end of their genetic lineage enclosed in a conversancy in central Kenya.
Should the bones of these creatures be spared the very likely fate of their accession into a museum, slated for display between Stellar’s sea cows and dodos in a panorama of tragic skeletons, and instead be buried in the earth, the dirt around their bodies will carry huge loads of radioactive plutonium isotopes for the next 100,000 years, which will later transform over the following few million years into a dense layer of uranium and lead atoms. These atomic residues are the global effect of nuclear bomb detonations through the 1960s, and suffice to differentiate any sediments that precede the explosions from those that follow. These dead rhinos will appear to have died inside a strange geologic stratum, enriched with these rare isotopes as well as excess carbon and ash and, perhaps, embedded with enduring “technofossils” like plastic beads and synthetic fibers. These rhinos will have died in a functionally and stratigraphically distinct period of earth history, the Anthropocene, when humans are a major geological force. (Waters et al. 2016)
Provided the right tools for interpreting what everlasting synthetic material or radioactive isotope products appear when in this strange stratum and what the symbolic forms with which this period’s artifacts are marked mean, the stratigraphy of these technofossils will reveal a chronology of tremendous precision to some archaeologist of the distant future. Only in recent human generations has our species produced materials and effects that will endure past, for example, the doubling of the time since our common ancestor with chimpanzees while still marking time so exactly that the geological record is saturated with the temporality of human history. This observation illustrates historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s claim that the so-called “Anthropocene” implies the intersection of human, natural, and geological historical scales, and it also points to the uncanny fact that this intersection will be legible in the earth forever, as far as we are concerned. (Chakrabarty 2009) Although catastrophes aplenty have defined the history of life and earth in the past, ranging from bolide impacts to volcanism, never has so much happened so quickly and registered discretely and deeply in the palimpsest of time.
As the frenetic speed of a historically new, although in many ways deep-rooted, culture fueled by a globalizing petro-fossil capital economy marks and mars the earth, increasingly many processes that required thousands or millions of years to evolve and stabilize are threatened or destroyed. The species that humans have extinguished, whether in pre- or recent history, represent the work of the depth of time. Monocultures and domestic animals, products of intensive artificial selection and, in some cases, genetic engineering, run over continents formerly stocked with organisms adapted over millions of years to the local physical environment and other dynamic co-constituents of their ecosystems. There is good reason to believe that many or most eco-systems on earth are functionally disturbed due to dramatic anthropogenic changes in recent history. (Donlan et al. 2006) Many more lineages and eco-systems wrought over deep time are threatened by the viral spread of fast-replicating cultural and technological change and innovation. Is it a general feature of modernity that the new forms, recently coalesced forces, always erase the long-accreted past? How is it that innovation at the human timescale, while being itself a historical force, in fact obscures history? What are the stakes of this loss?
In the past, anthropology has slated some people, usually the “tribes” or “cultures” they wish to study, as “without history.” (Wolf 2010)This charge can refer to many crimes: not having a tradition concerning the production of a written or otherwise long-enduring “factual” chronicle of events, not changing much, ie. always reproducing rather than revolutionizing the society, or not being brought into the scope of “world history,” viz. the history of civilization, or of empire, or of capitalism. The famed French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once suggested that this distinction between peoples “with history” and “without history” was “clumsy,” not to say offensive, and might be replaced with a less loaded distinction, that of the relative designation of “cold” and “hot” societies:
the former seeking, by the institutions they give themselves, to annul the possible effects of historical factors on their equilibrium and continuity in a quasi-automatic fashion; the latter resolutely internalizing the historical process and making it the moving power of their development. (Lévi-Strauss 1966)
The “cold” societies are cold in the physical sense: entropy grips them and they are static in equilibrium. They have mythology, perhaps, but no history. They are “traditional.” The “hot” ones, overfull with an excess of energy, move, grow and change. They work to innovate and expand constantly. Significant social, cultural and technological change is recognizably different on the order of generations or centuries, not millennia. Perhaps the primary critique of this distinction is not a matter of intension, but that of extension. The human world is warming such that while there may be pockets or pools of Lévi-Strauss’s cold, no one really escapes the effects of the present global hot society. Many cultural and linguistic lineages today have ended or are severely attenuated in the face of the globalizing heat of a capitalist economy.
True as it may be that much of human history was cold and rather recently it has gotten hotter, we might more carefully consider the temporal scope and direction of this change, and what this change means. It is not dynamism of heat or stasis of cold alone, but also the causal scope of human actions, a function of particular technologies and social structures, that makes a difference in thinking through what propelled the Anthropocene. Differences between societies with long or short causal effects through time and space might be the most relevant kind of differences. Of course, we have been global ecological actors, not just spectators, for a long time: the death of the mammoth, as well as the prehistoric deaths of North American saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, and Volkswagen-sized, armadillo-like Glyptodonts, Malagasy koala lemurs, New Zealand moas, and much else besides indicates that humans have caused, directly or indirectly, extinction and eco-systemic alteration for millennia. (Sandom et al. 2014) Is the regrettable demise of Northern White Rhinos is just another notch on the tally stick?
Not quite. What makes the Anthropocene different, we might note, is that the power and temporal scope of human activity has dramatically increased: geologists can see now the residues of fossil-fuel combustion, nuclear fallout and pollution in recent sediments, and these will last far into the future. Humans have caused the extinction of species and destruction of ecosystems that will have severe ecological consequences for thousands or millions of years. The “cold” equilibrium that characterized most of our species history is nowhere to be seen. For most of human and hominid (pre)history, the sphere of immediately possible action was limited to somewhere between an arm’s reach and the range of sight. The effects of human activity did not threaten persistence deep into the future. Along with the tremendous increase in power afforded by the technologies and social configurations of the present, these techno-social apparatuses have also expanded the spatial and temporal scope of human action. Irrespective of the answers to the important questions why this state of affairs exists and who is responsible for it, it remains true that what humans do now matters in a new way because the effects of our decisions, ramified through a complex technical and social matrix, can potentially persist long into the future and can effect the whole globe. From this perspective, we see a tremendous and unprecedented mismatch between human cognition and the profound causal potentials of our actions stretching through geologic time and global space.
Herein lies the Faustian bargain of the present: can we trust ourselves with the power to effect much greater changes than we will ever witness or ever conceptualize? No matter the power of human technologies and networks of social interaction, the scope of human cognition places a strong constraint on what kinds of actions can be understood and intelligently decided upon. Our “hot society” technologies and social logics have imprinted themselves upon earth history, in geologic strata filled with fossils and techno-fossils, introducing a new scale of history to earth processes. Just as colonial and imperial projects brought people “without history” into these last acts of the global drama of industrial and post-industrial capitalism, so do the residues of nuclear bombs, carbon emissions, pollution, and the consumption of expanding human populations bring the earth itself into our history. Before the Anthropocene was an eternity, but now every moment becomes geologically real, mattering not just for us, but also for all life.
* Special thanks to Dr. Harry Greene (Cornell) for insightful discussion on Late Pleistocene extinctions.
Chakrabarty, D. 2009. The Climate of History: Four Theses. Critical Inquiry 35(2):197-222.
Donlan, C. et al. 2006. Pleistocene Rewilding: An Optimistic Agenda for Twenty-First Century Conservation. The American Naturalist 168(5):660-681.
Faure, G., and Mensing, D. 2005. Isotopes - Principles and applications. 3rd Edition. Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley & Sons.
Jablonski, D.; Chaloner, W. G. (1994). "Extinctions in the fossil record (and discussion)". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B 344 (1307): 11–17.
Lévi-Strauss, C. 1966. The Savage Mind (La Pensée Sauvage). London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. pp. 233-234.
Palopoulou, E. et al. 2015. Complete Genomes Reveal Signatures of Demographic and Genetic Declines in the Woolly Mammoth. Current Biology 25(10):1395-1400.
Sandom, C. et al. 2014. Global late Quaternary megafauna extinctions linked to humans, not climate change. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B 281: 20133254.
Vartanyan, S.L. et al. 2008. Collection of radiocarbon dates on the mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) and other genera of Wrangel Island, northeast Siberia, Russia. Quaternary Research 70:51.
Waters, C. et al. 2016. The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science 351(6269): DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2622.
Wolf, E. 2010. Europe and the People without History. 2nd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Paul Mitchell is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. He has conducted paleoanthropological and bio-archaeological fieldwork and analysis in East Africa, the Near East, Europe, and the United States, and was a Fulbright Scholar in Tanzania in 2014. His current research interests include a cultural history of the Paleolithic, the intersection of archaeology, ecology, and politics, and the history of anthropology. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.