Were Humans More Advanced Before Us?

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.

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The US Coastline 20,000 years ago. Photo Courtesy of PBS.
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An example of artist Patrick Dougherty’s arboreal architecture. Photo courtesy of Patrick Dougherty.

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.

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.

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Replica of Aeolipile. Photo by By Katie Crisalli

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.

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Remains of the Semipalatinsk Test Range, Kazakhstan. Photo courtesy of voxpopuli.kz
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Screw, likely a fossilized Crinoid, in 300 million year old rock. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.

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?

Ronan Cray is the author of Red Sand and Dust Eaters. He is also a podcast and short film producer, though rather lazy and slow at both.

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