Alien Scientist 50: Alien Fossil Possibilities
Stephen Marshall, a former resident of Tsukuba, has been writing Alien Scientist articles for the Alien Times since 2001. Even though he no longer lives in Tsukuba, he is still a regular contributor to the magazine. Here is his latest intergalactic report.
Fossils fascinate us not only because they reach out to us over geological epochs of time, but because they seem to bridge between the living and the non-living worlds.
The term fossil can refer to the actual remains of something once living – like a skeleton or shell – as well as something that has become transformed through mineralisation or petrification. So even simple old bones or tree trunks can make for fascinating fossils. A skeleton is a sort of vestigial organism – definitely dead and yet made of the same physical material that was once part of a living being. Meanwhile, a mineralised carcass or petrified tree has the added twist of having an eerie, uncanny resemblance to a specific living thing, while yet being made of an entirely different substance from a different era. It has the form of life but contains no organic matter – as if a living creature turned to stone.
Fossilised remains can also include indirect traces of living things – such as fossilised animal droppings, known as coprolites, or the fossilised remains of animal constructions, or traces on the ground such as footprints. While perhaps nothing can surpass the special frisson of a directly petrified plant or animal, there is yet something fascinating about fossil footprints. Perhaps it is in their metaphorical resonance: the normal everyday footprint is indelibly associated with the idea of a trace or record, so the fossilised footprint is a doubly resonant imprint.
Fossils can transport us into the exotic worlds of the past – of ancient species and ancient lands that no longer exist. They can bring dinosaurs alive in our imagination, thundering across the plains or stumbling into the swamps and tar-pits of long-lost continents.
A further leap could allow us to imagine discovering the fossilised footprints of alien creatures otherwise unknown to Earth. In a stereotypical scenario, we can imagine a flying saucer coming to visit, and some alien bipeds stepping down and walking around, leaving footprints that could become fossilised.
We could imagine this alien visitation occurring at some revealing time in the distant past. If this were before life as we know it began, the alien footprints would not be accompanied by any other fossilised remains (in fact, this would make us dare to wonder if they might be alien footprints in the first place). Or, we could imagine the visit occurring in a period when Earth was teeming with life, but with no intelligent life-forms around to record the visit (or at least, none that passed down their ancestral memories to us). We could nevertheless envisage the dramatic scenario of dinosaurs chasing aliens – or aliens chasing dinosaurs? – from their lithic footprints… and coprolites.
One could also imagine that the aliens might attempt to leave some deliberate record of their visit to be discovered by later observers. But how could they be sure of leaving a trace to be picked up by hypothetical creatures that might or might not evolve in millions of years’ time? Would they try to safely bury their ‘fossil message’ to preserve it for a sufficiently long period, or try to keep it as visible as long as possible on the surface? This would depend on which life-form would be first to develop palaeontology.
Then again, we could imagine an alien visit some time in the far future, when humanity no longer inhabits the Earth (whether through extinction or emigration). So we could imagine an alien reconnaissance party arriving to look for the fossilised remains of Cenozoic Earthlings. It is fun to imagine them discovering the ruins of our sprawling cities as evidence of intelligent life. Or they might find the petrified remains of tower cranes and industrial plants, all steel trusses and pipes and chimneys, and imagine these as so many Earthling anatomies turned to stone.
Or they could find more direct traces of humans, in the ordered ranks of skeletons laid down in their necropolitan beds, awaiting their fate as geology. And they would be surely delighted to find mountainous pyramids of stone with their carefully mummified occupants equipped for the afterlife. Meanwhile, future alien scholars may engage in a furious debate about whether the anthropomorphic statues scattered around human settlements are the fortuitously fossilised bodies of their inhabitants, or some kind of record left for palaeontologists of the future.