How long would it take to wipe all trace of man from Earth?

09 November 2008

Question

If the human race were to become extinct, how long before all traces of our existence were to disappear?

Answer

We put this to John Nudds, University of Manchester, Senior Lecturer in Palaeontology Thinking first in terms of archaeological timescale if the human race were to become extinct tomorrow then our buildings and roads would gradually decay and possibly within a hundred or hundreds of years many buildings would start to collapse. The sturdier stone built buildings would stand a lot longer than this as we know because we still have Greek Temples and Egyptian pyramids with us today. If we think in terms of those ancient civilisation sit will only be a few millennia before our city would firstly be overcome by vegetation and then would be buried by silt and sediment. If you consider the fabrics used in modern day construction: reinforced concrete, plastics etcetera these would certainly survive the burial for at least as long as the two million year-old stone tools dating from the early humans from Africa, for example. If we think in terms of a geological timescale - this country and indeed most of Europe has been under the sea for a much greater period of geological history than it has been land. The one thing we can be certain of is that sea levels will rise again and this country will be flooded once more by shallow sea and then all of our cities will become deeply buried by marine sediments. Over geological time, over millions of years they'll be preserved in a rock stratum in just the same way that dinosaurs are preserved in rock strata from 65 million years ago. When we consider that the oldest fossils we have on Earth are 3 and a half billion year-old single-celled microscopic, soft-bodied bacteria. If such tiny and delicate organisms can survive for that long then certainly the robust skeletons of Homo sapiens can survive for similar timescales. In actual fact organisms that live in the sea are much more likely to be fossilised than organisms like ourselves that live on land. So human fossils will always be rather scarce. We know this already because although hominids have been around for say five million years the actual numbers of fossil human skeletons is very low. Certainly some of us will be fossilised and we will survive buried in rock strata. To answer the question, when the human race does eventually become extinct, as it certainly will, although evidence of our existence will disappear from the Earth's surface relatively quickly - say within a few millennia - evidence of our existence will survive buried at depth probably for as long as the planet survives.

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