Our technology may be thousands of years behind. Over humankind’s long tenure on Earth, were there civilizations greater than our own, now lost to time? How would we find them, and would we know if we did?
Scientific American recently published an article called “Could an Industrial Prehuman Civilization Have Existed on Earth before Ours?”. The author, Steven Ashley, wondered if we had the methods to tell if a civilization existed before our own timeline after millions of years of tectonic plate movement and erosion would have recycled and covered the remains of ages past. This has come to be known as the Silurian Hypothesis, the possibility of a pre-human civilization. The difficulty in proving one is a paucity of extant objects. Even the many dinosaur bones in the Natural History Museums and paleontology labs the world over average one fossil per 10,000 years.
That may be thinking too large. We don’t need to go back millions of years to look for civilizations, or non-human civilizations at that. Our current understanding of human settlements stretches back little more than 10,000 years, yet humans have had the same relative brain capacity, the same intelligence, for about 500,000 years. It took less than sixty years for humans to go from horse-drawn carriages to a moon landing. Human civilizations could have risen to our current position dozens of times without leaving much of a trace. And a civilization that rose beyond our own, or developed along different lines, might leave behind artifacts we would hardly recognize. If 18th century humans found a compact disc, they would make nothing of it other than that it might be man-made. A satellite phone prior to round earth theory would be completely inscrutable.
Are we the first progression from hunter-gatherer to astronaut? It is mathematically possible. Legends are full of stories, of godlike creatures with advanced technologies like flight and remote communication. Historians see this as evidence of the human imagination. Conspiracy theorists see this as evidence of extra-terrestrials. Few posit it may be evidence… of us.
How would we find ancient human civilizations? Start by looking for cities, not where they are now but where they would have been during the last ice age. We know climate change and rising sea levels will consume 570 of our largest cities in the next 50 years. That is one seventh of humanity impacted by only a 2 m rise in sea level. But 20,000 years ago, the ocean was 120 m lower. With water locked up in continental sized glaciers, coastlines extended far out into what is now the deep ocean. Assuming humans then built their cities as humans do now, along the coast, primarily at major river tributaries, the vast majority of those ancient cities would only be found underwater.
Amazingly, one such city has been discovered. In 2000, scientists using sonar off the west coast of India discovered the 9,500 year old lost city of Dwarka. What had once been only the mythical home of Lord Krishna, the ruins of Dwarka remain below 40m of ocean, 20 kilometers off the coast of present day India. Subsequent studies found that the city lay beside a riverbed, just as cities do today. While more maritime archaeology will be required to investigate Dwarka, this discovery proves the possibility of finding cities along whole continental shelves.
Egyptians built their empires along the Nile, the only fertile floodplains in a sea of desert sands. But those sands weren’t always desert. 11,000 years ago, the Sahara was lush and green with lakes, rivers and forests. Somewhere out in the Empty Quarter there may be the remains of fishing villages or trading cities, lost now in the vast, unexplored emptiness, glimpsed only in passing, unremarked, by Bedouins. Whatever cities might have risen in that time would be lost to the sands.
Or would they? In 1992, using satellite imagery, famed adventurer Ranulph Fiennes and his team discovered the fabled lost city of Ubar. Located in a the remote expanse of the Rub’ Al Khali desert of Oman, the city was discovered to have fallen into a sinkhole under its own weight and then buried by the desert. Once believed to be a legend, mentioned in the Koran and “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights”, labeled the “Atlantis of the Sands” by T.E. Lawrence, its discovery begs the question: how many more such cities await the technology to find them?
But what will you look for, exactly? Our own civilization is built on stone and steel. Even our flying machines are made of metal, despite their organic inspirations. Perhaps a previous civilization went another route, favoring organic materials, biodegradable materials, over metallurgical. Spider silk is stronger than steel. Chitin is just as durable and feasibly manufactured as plastic. Yet the biodegradable nature of these materials means we would need an isotope test to even detect a strange concentration of once biological materials, if we bothered to look for it at all. Would an archaeologist striking upon a high evidence of chitin be more likely to name it a manufacturing facility or the refuse pit of ancient crab fisherman?
Perhaps they built nothing like us, using materials we wouldn’t consider. Architects and artists have spent the last few decades growing buildings out of living trees. Since trees have the remarkable ability to withstand storms and live, in some cases, for thousands of years, trees make an excellent building material for those patient enough to try it. Once abandoned, baubotonical structures would grow and twist and burn and decay, leaving no trace of the scale of the people who lived there. But trees can also be preserved in dry or oxygen free environments. In 2004 Hurricane Ivan exposed a 60,000 year old forest off the coast of Alabama 20 metres under the ocean. Covered in sediment and unable to decompose, the trunks were nearly pristine. If an ancient race used organic architecture and we found it in a similar way, would we see the civilization for the trees?
Some strange technologies, like quantum computing, might leave no trace at all.
And what of their technology? Our own has advanced nearly beyond human imagination. Some strange technologies, like quantum computing, might leave no trace at all. DNA can now be used to code and store vast amounts of data preserved in silicon spheres the size of a grain of sand. Even if we discovered the sand, it would be a stretch to look inside for DNA, much less have the technology to read that DNA, much less recognize it as a code rather than a biological blueprint, much less read it without a Rosetta stone.
What are we overlooking? What are we dismissing?
To the contrary, perhaps the artifacts found to date had very little importance. Archeologists have a tendency to give objects religious or ceremonial significance. The very relics they imbue with religious importance are immediately sold in large quantities as knockoffs to tourists visiting those same historic monuments. Perhaps that’s all the statues ever were — souvenirs for wandering tradesman, advertisements for plays performed for kings, dolls for children, action figures, knickknacks and kitsch. What if the 40,000 year old Lowenmensch figurine advertised the latest horror film or the Venus of Hohle Fels a hunter’s amateur whittle? In our increasingly secular societies, where commerce outpaces communion, where imaginary plastic characters come free in children’s meals, nearly every object we recognize has no profane or magical quality beyond our momentary delight.
We now see a divergence from combustion technology as we adopt electric cars, trains, and infrastructure. Perhaps what we achieve in the next fifty years, could have been attained fifty years ago if we had chose Edison over Ford.
Could we have developed sooner? History is littered with inventions and inventors who did not succeed in mass production. The Baghdad battery remains a mystery. Eilmer of Malmesbury flew a glider over his monastery in the 11th century, 800 years before the Wright Brothers. The secrets of wireless technology died with Tesla 100 years before the invention of the cell phone.
The history of science shows us that our minds have always exceeded our wallets. Inventing is one thing; adopting it is another. Inventors need marketing and funding for mass distribution, meaning many great ideas languish in the historical rubbish bin.
On the flip side, some of the technology we rely on today is millennia old. We forget that the coal-burning, steam-powered electricity generating power plants that drive our economies are based on a two thousand year old invention, the aeolipile, which we have improved upon but rarely replaced.
We are loathe to admit we made our own mistakes on the technological path. If the Romans hadn’t adopted Christianity, would we have landed on the moon in 400 CE? During the Renaissance, scholars taught themselves Greek, Latin, and Arabic in order to translate the original texts of philosophy, astronomy, mathematics and medicine “lost” during the Dark Ages. Four centuries later, men stood on the moon. Would we have achieved it even sooner, absent time to re-tool?
As advanced as we are, are we millennia behind?
This isn’t idle fireside armchair archaeology. The discovery of a technologically advanced pre-cursor could be what we need. We see ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution as we overconsume, warm the planet, feed ourselves grossly obese, and ignore the extinction of our fellow terrestrial travelers. If we found evidence that someone like us, no, someone better than us, had their run and disappeared, that warning might be enough to wake us from our fever-dream of progress.
Our current view of history does not conceive of death. We see it as a single line stretching to infinity. As every archaeologist knows, it is death that gives life meaning.
In Kazakhstan, at the Semipalatinsk Test Range, abandoned concrete observation towers rise like shark fins on the lonely steppe. They face what was once a nuclear test site. What will humans think of this 10,000 years from now? They will firstly recognize that the concrete is of inferior construction to that of Rome two millenia earlier, leading them to assume the civilization that built them lacked knowledge transfer with Roman society. They might register the high residual radiation. They might pinpoint it to the center where temperatures equal to the surface of the sun melted sand into glass. There they would stop and, assuming our ignorance, say that the towers were part of a ritual observance of perhaps a meteorite collision, ancient peoples worshiping an extraordinary event they could barely understand, a 20th century Stonehenge made less impressive due to the erection of aggregate stone rather than monolithic slabs. Ascribe those standing relics to a nuclear race? Laughable.
We call it the Stone Age because stones are all that’s left. Will the Atomic Age be reduced to the Age of Concrete, some of man’s most ingenious manipulation of matter reduced to one enduring element by unequal, unimaginative amateur grave-robbers.
What if we are the primitive ones, unable to make heads or tails of our ancestor’s magnificent technology, picking through the foundations of space elevators, unable to comprehend the ancestors who used them to escape their own hubris?
Consider the screw discovered in a 300 million year old rock in Russia in the 90’s. Scientists, describe it as a natural formation, a hoax, or the fossil of a Crinoid. That denial drives the opposite end of the spectrum to posit wild theories of alien visitations and advanced technology. Such out-of-place objects are telling not in themselves but in the reaction they produce in us. Both responses are narcissistic. Both assume that humans, at this moment, occupy the peak of technological development, that no ancient race could invent a screw, that only an alien race might. We engage in either narrative to keep our contemporary selves at the top of the pyramid.
A screw is, after all, an inclined plane, one of the simplest mechanical inventions, found in nature and manufactured by humans. If we can’t agree on a screw lodged in a rock, how would we ever agree on anything more advanced?
When ancient Hindu texts describe the Vimana, flying machines or aerial chariots, archaeologists and aeronautical engineers scoff. Yet we fly in ever larger aircraft ourselves, even built cities in space. We’ve moved beyond mechanical and combustion mechanisms toward seemingly miraculous flight with no moving parts. We’ve done it. Why couldn’t they?
Start with the words, “I don’t know.”
Perhaps the answer is this. When finding an odd artifact, do not rush to ascribe it a name or quality. Start with the words, “I don’t know.” Nothing drives a human mad like the absence of an explanation. Religions recruit with the unknown. Science was born of mystery. If we think of past humans as intellectual equals, as resourceful as we are today, as, in Mike Tyson’s words, modern people in funny clothes, that humbling thought might slow us from quick judgement. We might consider not what we know but the vast amount we have yet to learn. We might concede someone else learned it first. With that starting point, what will we make of what they left behind?