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Abstract

As humans have colonised and modified the Earth’s surface, they have developed progressively more sophisticated tools and technologies. These underpin a new kind of stratigraphy, that we term technostratigraphy, marked by the geologically accelerated evolution and diversification of technofossils – the preservable material remains of the technosphere (Haff, 2013), driven by human purpose and transmitted cultural memory, and with the dynamics of an emergent system. The technosphere, present in some form for most of the Quaternary, shows several thresholds. Its expansion and transcontinental synchronisation in the mid 20th century has produced a global technostratigraphy that combines very high time-resolution, great geometrical complexity and wide (including transplanetary) extent. Technostratigraphy can help characterise the deposits of a potential Anthropocene Epoch and its emergence marks a step change in planetary mode.
The Anthropocene Review
2014, Vol. 1(1) 34 –43
© The Author(s) 2014
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DOI: 10.1177/2053019613514953
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Research article
The technofossil record
of humans
Jan Zalasiewicz,1 Mark Williams,1 Colin N
Waters,2 Anthony D Barnosky3,4,5 and
Peter Haff6
Abstract
As humans have colonised and modified the Earth’s surface, they have developed progressively
more sophisticated tools and technologies. These underpin a new kind of stratigraphy, that we
term technostratigraphy, marked by the geologically accelerated evolution and diversification
of technofossils – the preservable material remains of the technosphere (Haff, 2013), driven by
human purpose and transmitted cultural memory, and with the dynamics of an emergent system.
The technosphere, present in some form for most of the Quaternary, shows several thresholds.
Its expansion and transcontinental synchronisation in the mid 20th century has produced a global
technostratigraphy that combines very high time-resolution, great geometrical complexity and
wide (including transplanetary) extent. Technostratigraphy can help characterise the deposits of a
potential Anthropocene Epoch and its emergence marks a step change in planetary mode.
Keywords
Anthropocene, human artefacts, stratigraphy, technology
Introduction
From the beginnings of geology, fossils have been recognised as central to the science, not only
because they are a record of life (the most important feature of our planet) but because biological
evolution has provided a means of dating and correlating strata, and hence underpinning the
Geological Time Scale. Thus, the Phanerozoic Eon (roughly, the last half-billion years of Earth
history) was characterised by complex metazoans with hard skeletal parts. It has a finely resolved
timescale largely founded on fossil zones, reflecting the evolution of these organisms. In this way,
Phanerozoic time can be split into intervals that may be less than 1 million years in duration, for
1University of Leicester, UK
2British Geological Survey, UK
3University of California, USA
4University of California Museum of Paleontology, USA
5 University of California Museum of Vertebrate Zoology,
USA
6Duke University, USA
Corresponding author:
Jan Zalasiewicz, Department of Geology, University of
Leicester, University Road, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK.
Email: jaz1@le.ac.uk
514953ANR0010.1177/2053019613514953The Anthropocene ReviewZalasiewicz et al.
research-article2014
Zalasiewicz et al. 35
example exploiting the evolution of graptolites (the remains of extinct colonial plankton) in strata
of the Ordovician and Silurian periods, of ammonites in the Jurassic, and of mammals and marine
microfossils in the Tertiary. The Precambrian (that is, pre-Phanerozoic time), some 4 billion years
in duration, retains a cruder timescale still largely based on arbitrary numerical time divisions
(Gradstein et al., 2012).
In more recent geological times, of the later Tertiary and Quaternary periods, other means of
correlation have been used, such as magnetostratigraphy and cyclostratigraphy, that exploit changes
in the Earth’s magnetic field and in its spin and orbit respectively (Cande and Kent, 1992; Pälike
et al., 2006; Wade et al., 2011). These have provided the highest time-resolution, locally to millen-
nial scale, and in the best cases of 14C dating, to the decadal (or in some cases even of annual/sea-
sonal) scale. By comparison, late Tertiary/Quaternary biostratigraphic divisions based upon
appearances and extinctions of various species provide relatively coarser subdivision than these
recently developed means of dating. In this interval, biostratigraphy, especially on land, mostly
reflects local patterns of species immigration and emigration driven largely by climate change, that
were in turn driven by the astronomical variations. (There have, though, been some notable extinc-
tions, particularly of large mammal species over the past ~50 millennia, likely at least in part
through impacts by early hunters: Koch and Barnosky, 2006; Martin and Klein, 1984.)
However, for time intervals since the evolution of humans during the Quaternary, new ways to
use fossils as geological time markers have arisen. These are largely the physical objects devised
and made by species of humans beginning at least 2.5 Myr ago (Ambrose, 2001; Kimbel et al.,
1996). Changes in these artefacts have been driven by cultural, not biological, evolution. Using
tools is not quite singular to humans, limited examples being provided by other species such as
apes and crows (Van Lawick-Goodall, 1970) but humans have taken tool production to levels of
sophistication that are without precedent in the history of life. The study of human-produced arte-
facts has been largely the province of archaeologists and, for more recent years, historians (using
that term in its widespread meaning of referring to human rather than natural history: Chakrabarty,
2009). Because human colonisation of Earth has for most of history been local, patchy and of low
density, artefacts are sporadically distributed (though locally common) and reflect local cultural
development. Nevertheless, the artefacts can be used to date sedimentary deposits and so help
constrain the timing of events in natural history. For example, the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and
Neolithic, each referring to successively younger stages of development, are defined and recog-
nised by the presence of certain tool kits (though these are not synchronously developed around the
world).
With the explosive growth in human numbers since around the end of the 18th century, associ-
ated with and reflecting the increased exploitation of energy, mainly steam in the 19th century and
largely hydrocarbons in the 20th century, there has been an orders-of-magnitude increase in the
production of human artefacts, as outlined by such measures as the PAT (population × affluence ×
technology) scale (e.g. Steffen et al., 2011), especially since the ‘Great Acceleration’ (Steffen et al.,
2007) of the mid 20th century. This has been accompanied by acceleration in the rate of technologi-
cal evolution (and hence in the rate of appearance of different types of artefacts) and by globaliza-
tion, which has spread these artefacts around the Earth, making them consistently transregional
rather than diachronous or local time markers.
All of these objects may be considered in general as ichnofossils (trace fossils), as suggested by
Ford et al. (forthcoming), Barnosky (2013), Zalasiewicz et al. (forthcoming a) and others. As such,
they have the capacity to characterise and date the enclosing sedimentary deposits, complementing
the data provided by more conventional organic remains (Barnosky, 2013; Wilkinson et al., forth-
coming). However, these particular human-made phenomena have several quite distinctive
36 The Anthropocene Review 1(1)
characteristics, which serve to separate them from trace fossils as normally understood. Hence, we
distinguish them here as technofossils, a biological innovation that may be exploited to provide
ultra-high resolution geological dating and correlation in technostratigraphy, after the concept of
the technosphere proposed by Haff (2013; see also Haff, 2010, 2012).
In this paper, we outline the distinctive nature of the biostratigraphic information provided by
technofossils, discuss its novel aspects, and explore how this may be of use to help characterise the
deposits of a potential Anthropocene Epoch (Crutzen, 2002; Waters et al., forthcoming; Williams
et al., 2011; Zalasiewicz et al., 2008), much as previous biological innovations provide the material
and conceptual basis for characterising the geological eras, periods and ages that have been assem-
bled as the Geological Time Scale (Williams et al., 2013). We note, too, the wider significance of
this phenomenon to Earth history.
Human artefacts as technofossils: Composition and form
Composition
The origin and diversification of metazoans has produced relatively few new mineral types over
and above inorganic mineral species (Hazen et al., 2008). Non-human fossils, both body and trace,
tend to be made of a limited number of materials that are specific to the species: thus molluscan
body fossils are of mostly of calcium carbonate (either aragonite or calcite) while vertebrate ones
are typically of apatite or its diagenetic derivatives. Non-human trace fossils tend to be yet more
limited, being either impressions in sediment (molds), sediment-filled holes (casts), or in rare cases
are made of selected local clasts as in the case of some solitary wasp nests (Ratcliffe and Fagerstrom,
1980). Some diversity of composition can be found in the case of trace fossils secreted with spe-
cific compositions (spider-web silk and honey-comb wax), excreted (rock hyrax latrines: Chase
et al., 2012) or gathered (packrat middens). In all of these cases, however, the diversity of composi-
tion consists almost exclusively of organic materials.
Humans, by contrast, produce artefacts from materials that are either very rare in nature (uncom-
bined iron, aluminium and titanium) or unknown naturally (uncombined vanadium, molybdenum).
There is a wide variety of novel minerals such as boron nitride, tungsten carbide and ‘mineraloids’
such as artificial glasses and plastics (Zalasiewicz et al., forthcoming b). The number of these novel
materials continues to grow.
Where sufficiently common, widely distributed and preservable, these component materials
themselves may be used in themselves as fossil indicators of time (Ford et al., forthcoming;
Zalasiewicz et al., forthcoming b). Modern plastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene are
essentially a post-World War II phenomenon; their current global production is some 270 million
tonnes a year (Rochman et al., 2013), sufficient to cover the USA in a layer of standard kitchen
cling-film (plastic wrap). The total production of aluminium metal, also virtually all since 1950, is
at least 500 million tonnes (Zalasiewicz et al., forthcoming b). The distribution of these materials
is patchy, with densest concentrations in landfill sites and recycling and combustion plants.
However, there is sufficient escape, essentially as litter, for these to be common elements of both
marine (marine rubbish gyres and fragments in sediments) and terrestrial sedimentary environ-
ments, and thus to be time markers in recent, current and near-future deposits.
Novel and natural minerals commonly combine into anthropogenic lithologies. These include
concrete (annual production 3.4 billion tonnes and rising: Amato, 2013), bricks, mortar/cement,
breeze-block material, road metal (‘tar macadam’), ceramics and so on. As with the minerals, these
have evolved in type and amount in tandem with human cultural development. Particularly since
Zalasiewicz et al. 37
the mid 20th century, and the growth of urban areas in developing countries, they have become
more globally widespread (Ford et al., forthcoming).
Form
Minerals (considered sensu lato, including organogenic materials such as paper and textiles) and
rocks, both natural and artificial, are combined in a diversity of patterns to produce the diverse and
changing range of technofossils, that range in scale from the near-continental (urban conglomera-
tions) to small (e.g. bottles, pens) to microscopic (e.g. fly ash particles and other ‘nano-artefacts’:
Nowack and Bucheli, 2007). Some are fixed to the ground surface (buildings and roads), others are
not fixed (cups, books) while yet others are built for long-distance travel (cars, aeroplanes) that
may even extend beyond this planet (spacecraft). All that are preservable (see below) in the short
term (decades/centuries) can help characterise Anthropocene deposits for present-day Earth scien-
tists, while all that are preservable over geological timescales will contribute to the ‘far-future’
signal of the Anthropocene.
The morphological range of technofossils is almost infinitely greater than the range of trace
types produced by any other species. Most trace fossil-formers produce a single type of trace,
though some may produce a small number of different types (e.g. trilobite species that produce at
different times both Cruziana walking traces and Rusophycus resting traces). The number of dif-
ferent types of potentially preservable human artefacts, by contrast, numbers in the millions, as a
result of cultural evolution, and is growing daily.
Rate of evolution of technofossils
Early in hominid history, technofossil evolution roughly reflected the pace of human evolution.
Since the appearance of Homo sapiens, the two have been largely decoupled. Through the time of
Homo sapiens on Earth, some 200,000 years, the general trend has been for the rate of evolution of
technofossils to increase.
Thus, in the Late Pleistocene to early Holocene, discernable changes in technologies were
accomplished in millennia – e.g. from Stone Age, to Bronze Age to Iron Age. Within most human
communities, the technology produced during (and therefore the material life of) one generation
was very much like that of another. This was particularly pronounced in small hunter-gatherer
communities (where technologies stayed much the same, even towards the present day.
With the development of large, settled, agrarian communities, technofossil development
speeded up – though even here, some large agrarian communities, such as those of the ancient
Egyptians, remained relatively conservative in this respect. Subsequently, over most of the last 2–3
millennia, technofossil evolution was more rapid, although patchily distributed globally.
The quantity and variety of technofossils grew most quickly in the ancient Chinese and
Mediterranean worlds. The most durable sorts consisted of metal tools and weapons, and monu-
mental architecture, often of carved stone. The capacity to cast bronze originated some time about
2500 bc and reached an apex by 1500 bc. A surge in technofossil production followed with the
emergence of iron technology, because iron was more abundant if harder to work. By 1000 bc iron
tools and weapons were widespread in lands from China to the Mediterranean, and were coming
into use in parts of Africa. By contrast, in the Americas, technofossils consisted mainly of carved
stone, and metal-working remained negligible until ad 1500.
The quantity and variety of technofossils continued to grow, at an irregular pace. A high point
came during the Song Dynasty in China (10th–11th centuries), when a large-scale iron-working
38 The Anthropocene Review 1(1)
complex arose, using coal for fuel. During the Song Dynasty, the Chinese littered the landscape
with arrowheads, pots, hinges, nails, anchors and dozens of other types of iron artefacts.
The Song surge in technofossil production slackened in the 13th century. By the 16th century,
Europeans (and to an extent Africans) spread iron-working to the Americas, extending the geo-
graphic range of technofossils. By 1800, new production technologies and cheaper energy in the
form of fossil fuels, ratcheted up the rate of technofossil generation. This process, familiar under
the title ‘industrialization’ began in Britain but emerged in different forms within three generations
in diverse lands on all continents. By 1900, the quantity and variety of objects that would soon
become technofossils was orders of magnitude larger than in 1800.
From the Industrial Revolution, the items made and used by humans – and the resulting techno-
fossils – began to markedly change from one generation to the next. From the mid 20th century
onwards, the changes were globally synchronised and sufficiently rapid for social commentators to
write of ‘future-shock’ experienced not only between, but within human generations (Toffler,
1970). For example, the generation that lived from the early to late 1900s saw transportation
change from horses to automobiles to airplanes to rockets, and communication change from hand-
delivered letters, to telegraph, to land-line telephones, to email and mobile phones. All of these
changes are clearly reflected in the technofossil record.
The accelerating pace of technofossil evolution correlated strongly with increases in population,
not only globally, but also within specific cultures. It is in direct contrast to the pattern classically
seen in biological evolution, where the most rapid evolution typically occurs in small isolated
populations, with larger populations remaining more stable (e.g. Mayr, 1942).
Current evolution of the technosphere, of which the technofossils are the preserved remnant, is
hence now orders of magnitude faster than biological evolution. The rate of technospheric evolu-
tion corresponds in part with increased human numbers and energy expenditure, together with
enhanced cultural evolution through institutional means, such as expanded university and training
systems. But, there are clearly further factors at work. One factor is the exponentially increasing
technical possibilities founded on earlier advances, and the multiplying potential cross-links
between them, acting in positive (and accelerating) feedback systems.
Distribution and preservation
With acceleration of technofossil evolution has come increase in geographical distribution.
Technofossil evolution correlates in part with human population, with increased energy and mate-
rial use, and with increased globalization; the resulting stratigraphic signal within recent strata,
hence, is growing increasingly distinct. Artefacts of the past millennia mostly reflected local to
regional cultures, with a few exceptions. Arrowheads became widely distributed on every conti-
nent except Australia and Antarctica over the past 4000 years, while coins became widely distrib-
uted in Eurasia and northern Africa from 500 bc. However, post-World War II times have seen the
spread of, to take just a few out of many examples, paper-clips, aluminium cans, ball-point pens
and plastic bags over every continent, and spilling over into the marine realm. The human trace
fossils reflect geographic setting, as do the fossils in ancient strata. They are more typical of ter-
restrial settings, especially in and around urban regions, but they have spread widely into rural and
‘wilderness’ regions, too. Their spread into the marine environment is now significant, both from
being washed in from land and being transported into deep water via shipping traffic (Ramirez-
Llodra et al., 2011), as well as via the ebb surge currents following major storms and tsunami.
The abundance of technofossils reflects great current differences between the technosphere
and biosphere as regards recycling of its component matter. Many biological systems (e.g.
Zalasiewicz et al. 39
tropical forests) recycle virtually all of their component matter, the decay-related entropy
increase being balanced by solar energy input to recreate and maintain complex organic systems.
Even where component matter accumulates into organic-rich sediments, typical percentages of
production sequestered are less than 1%, and so in many strata fossils are rare. In the contempo-
rary technosphere, by contrast, recycling rates are much lower (e.g. ~50% for aluminium, <20%
for plastics, <10% for concrete). Detritus from the technosphere is hence abundantly
disseminated.
At the surface, technofossils will degrade physically and chemically over time, particularly as
the deposits that they lie on or that enclose them undergo erosion. The long-term preservation of
technofossils therefore requires burial. In detail, it reflects the conditions of that burial – many are
buried actively today, for instance in landfills – and of the subterranean environment, as they
undergo various degrees of alteration. Information regarding the preservability of various ‘tissues/
artefacts’ may be partly derived from knowledge of how fossils are preserved, and partly from
study of the condition of archaeological remains, though an increasing number of modern materi-
als and artefacts have few direct analogues either in palaeontology or in archaeology. Much,
though, is poorly digestible for scavenging metazoa and microbes (e.g. plastics, metals – even
wood is commonly seasoned or varnished to resist decay). Technofossils, particularly from their
expansion in production of the last few decades, are unlikely to be rare.
Once buried underground, rates of chemical and physical alteration of technofossils will be
controlled, as with natural sediments, by moisture content, temperature, oxygen content and pH.
Seemingly robust materials such as bricks or concrete may degrade in the presence of water, tem-
perature fluctuations and sulphate- or chloride-rich groundwaters, iron-based metals can corrode in
the presence of oxygen and chloride ions, and plastics degrade in the presence of light, oxygen,
heat or corrosive fluids (Ford et al., forthcoming). However, leachates sourced from these altered
deposits, notably rich in calcium carbonate sourced from degraded cement, concrete or plaster,
may produce cements that can ultimately bind and solidify deposits.
The last century, too, has seen the extension of humans to great depths in the crust, as mining
activities commonly reach hundreds of metres into the ground, and drilling operations penetrate to
several thousands of metres. This deep crustal penetration by the metazoan biosphere is without
precedent in Earth history. Simultaneously, human-made structures have invaded the skies and
even outer space, to reach other planets and moons of this star system. In the translation of this
contemporary phenomenon to stratigraphy, the deep crustal traces have extremely high preserva-
tion potential (until the rocks affected are carried to the surface and eroded, or until they are
affected by mountain-building processes so that borehole traces, for example, are obliterated by
high-grade metamorphism). The constructions that travel through the atmosphere, by contrast, are
only rarely preservable, for instance as aeroplanes that crash into the sea. In the case of extra-
terrestrial satellites and landing-craft, some are now distributed among other planets and moons,
while there is much currently human-made space debris in orbit. The technofossils left on our
Moon, at least, having also very high preservation potential. This phenomenon marks a new transi-
tion in the history of not just the Earth, but of the Solar System (indeed, the the Voyager spacecraft
recently left this realm to enter interstellar space: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.
php?release=2013-277).
Technofossil nomenclature
Trace fossils, like body fossils, may be classified using standard Linnean binomial nomenclature,
as ichnospecies. However, using this approach with technofossils (i.e. by reference to the
40 The Anthropocene Review 1(1)
trace-maker, as Homo sapiens ichnosp.) is clearly of little help in distinguishing between the many
types of individual traces.
Some broad categories may be equated with those applied to ichnofossils following the widely
used classification of Seilacher (1964); thus, as traces that are locomotory, resting, dwelling, feed-
ing and so on. Many if not most human artefacts could likely be classified thus. Thus, implements
ranging from stone tools to steel knives and electric food mixers could be identified as for killing
and processing food, and be feeding traces (pascerichnia). Buildings from the most primitive huts
to skyscrapers could be housing traces, i.e. domichnia. Roads and airport runways (and cars and
aeroplanes) could be locomotion traces, or repichnia.
The range and diversity of technofossils means that one could indulge in fine taxonomic
‘splitting’ and hierarchical categorization of the artefacts in terms of morphology and func-
tion. For instance, a toothbrush may be regarded as one type of artefact, within a wider cate-
gory of brushes and brooms. Collectively, these are all cleaning traces. In detail, thousands of
different types of toothbrushes have been produced. The range of diversity rivals biological
diversity – but ichnological characterisation of this sort may complement standard archaeo-
logical, historical and everyday vernacular categorization to provide useful insights. For
instance, while some categories of traces may have clear ichnological (and therefore wider
biological) counterparts, others may be more or less uniquely human – for instance, the tech-
nofossils that we build for recreation (tennis rackets, concert halls), and where novel catego-
ries may be needed.
Technostratigraphic classification
Just as the classification of the technofossils themselves merits careful consideration to encompass
the enormous, and growing, diversity of these phenomena, so does their formal exploitation in
biostratigraphic classification.
In palaeontology, the range and diversity of fossilizeable organisms is simplified to produce a
limited number of temporal divisions, often based on the most common, widespread and distinc-
tive of the fossils. Thus, in the Silurian, biostratigraphic zonation is largely based upon graptolites,
conodonts, chitinozoans, acritarchs and brachiopods (Melchin et al., 2012), with the most impor-
tant divisions being those where new grades of organisation are attained (such as the origin of
monograptid graptolites). Other types of fossil (even common ones such as corals, trilobites and
nautiloids) do not have widely employed zonations, although their recognition in strata may be
used to constrain geological age.
Similarly, the recognition of technostratigraphic zones may depend upon common technofos-
sils, and newly achieved grades of organisation. We suggest that the incoming of certain materials
(e.g. mass-produced plastics and aluminium) and the objects made from them (cans, bags) may
provide useful marker levels. Given the rate of technological progress, technostratigraphic divi-
sions may encompass as little as a decade. The middle of the 20th century has seen a change from
local techostratigraphies to, essentially, a global one, enhancing the potential of this time level
(Waters et al., forthcoming; Wolfe et al., 2013) as an appropriate and perhaps formal Anthropocene
beginning. Within this, evolutionary appearances and extinctions (particularly the latter) clearly do
not have the finality of their biological equivalents (consider long-playing vinyl records, now mak-
ing something of a comeback following their virtual disappearance two decades ago). Nevertheless,
the scale and rate of technostratigraphic change has produced abundant, preservable and effec-
tively exploitable evidence of the passage of time, particularly when first-appearance datums are
considered.
Zalasiewicz et al. 41
The future of technofossil evolution
Human traces clearly differ in several major respects from traditional ichnofossils, that are charac-
terised by narrow morphological ranges predetermined by genetic control. The extraordinary
diversity of human artefacts (linked to the activities of just one species), rate of morphological
evolution, and the acceleration in the rate of this change are without precedent in the Earth’s geo-
logical record. Hence our suggestion that these represent a new category of fossil: technofossils,
the preserved remains of the technosphere of Haff (2012) and the basis for technostratigraphy, for
ultra-high resolution dating and correlating of strata, concerned with a putative Anthropocene time
interval. They clearly reflect specific qualities that so far are unique to their initiating force, Homo
sapiens.
The technosphere comprises the interconnecting technological systems that underpin modern
human civilization (Haff, 2012), and is a phenomenon that has now reached a scale sufficient to
perturb the natural physical, chemical and biological cycles of the Earth (Röckstrom et al., 2009)
and provoke the suggestion of an Anthropocene Epoch (Crutzen, 2002).
The continued development of the technosphere and of the technostratigraphic imprint on Earth,
currently depends on the continued success of Homo sapiens on Earth. However, the technosphere,
although clearly currently mediated through human agency, has a dynamic of its own, and cannot
be said to be under any central human control. Further, as a complex system representing contem-
porary global economic networks, it is prone to unpredictable systemic failure (cf. Helbing, 2013)
(an early example of this may be the disappearance of the Song Chinese coal–iron complex, and its
attendant technofossils, after 1200 ce). The resultant technostratigraphy, hence, may follow the
catastrophist trajectory envisaged for Earth history by the 19th century savant Baron Cuvier, rather
than the gradualist progression later proposed by Charles Lyell. With the development of artificial
intelligence and self-repair systems, some degree of extra-human autonomy may be appearing, and
the emergence of self-replicating ‘von Neumann’ machines cannot be ruled out. In any event, con-
tinued technospheric evolution is set to produce new and distinct, short-lived technofossil assem-
blages that will succeed the present ones, to result in greater and geologically more long-lasting
technostratigraphic change.
Given its central role in ongoing global change, not least in the perturbation of mass and energy
flows, the emerging technosphere, if sustained, may represent the most fundamental revolution on
Earth since the origin of the biosphere. The technofossil assemblages shed from it chart a step
change in planetary mode.
Acknowledgements
CNW publishes with the permission of the Director, British Geological Survey. Simon Price, Jon Ford and
Frank Oldfield are thanked for their comments on earlier versions of this manuscript, and we are grateful also
to John McNeill for his detailed review, which substantially strengthened the manuscript, particularly as
regards the historical context.
Funding
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit
sectors.
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... [16][17][18]29,30 The comprehension of the worldwide generation and synchronic distribution of coffee USW has large relevance, serving as a sign of human capacity to produce artifacts of rare nature (elementary aluminum) and modern plastics. 27,28,31 The Technosphere is an environmental compartment comprising the interconnected technological systems that support the modern stage of Mankind, and it is a phenomenon that now has sufficient scale to disrupt the Earth System's natural biogeochemical cycles. 31 Anthropogenic materials incorporated by rocks and sediments are piece of evidence of the Technosphere, called technofossils, and it is distinguish from natural fossils because, in general, are originated from rare or artificial materials, serving as a base for technostratigraphy. ...
... 27,28,31 The Technosphere is an environmental compartment comprising the interconnected technological systems that support the modern stage of Mankind, and it is a phenomenon that now has sufficient scale to disrupt the Earth System's natural biogeochemical cycles. 31 Anthropogenic materials incorporated by rocks and sediments are piece of evidence of the Technosphere, called technofossils, and it is distinguish from natural fossils because, in general, are originated from rare or artificial materials, serving as a base for technostratigraphy. They are possible markers of Anthropocene, proposed to be a new Geologic Epoch that differs from Holocene since Mankind was converted into a geological force that change Earth System balance. ...
... 27,28 Consequently, wastes of massive use of coffee can ben, if preserved on Sanitary landfill (SL), be used in the future as possible geologic fossils (Technofossils) registers of the Anthropocene. 31 Even considering that a radioactive marker from nuclear fallout detonations from XX century will likely be chosen as the geological evidence that marks the beginning of the Anthropocene, 10,32,33 technofossils can be excellent auxiliary stratigraphic markers. 28,31 There are two main USW produced in association with coffee production: biodegradable waste (soggy coffee grounds and varied paper), and technofossils (aluminum and plastics). ...
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... In contrast, the Anthropocene may represent an ongoing geological Event, and not an Epoch, characterized by human-environment interactions (Gibbard et al., 2022). However, plastics produced at industrial scales (UNEP, 2015), followed by their appearance in geological archives, may be considered an indication of Anthropocene deposits (e.g., Stager, 2011;Corcoran et al., 2014;Zalasiewicz et al., 2014;Tiller et al., 2019;GESAMP, 2019;Haram et al., 2020). ...
... Because plastic fragmentseither as fragments or incrusted on pebblescan constitute beach sediment, and the study site is located in a region with intense carbonate precipitation and beach rock formation (e.g., Darwin, 1839;Angulo et al., 2018), these plastic fragmentsas well as other marine litter itemscan be preserved during the formation of these rocks (e.g., Zalasiewicz et al., 2016). This scenario suggests high susceptibility to the fossilization process, as technofossil records proposed by Zalasiewicz et al. (2014), characterized by newly created materials (such as glasses and plastics) especially given their preservation when buried. ...
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... One does not have to equate this distinction with the idealized Nature/Culture divide to acknowledge that it sets sedimentology up against remarkably deep-seated conceptual structures. After all, it is a natural science that must now incorporate substances and patterns that, in principle, do not belong [1,4,[37][38][39]. ...
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... Hasselmann et al., 2003;Giddens, 2009). Seemingly ephemeral everyday practices are causing changes that will last into deep geological time (Zalasiewicz et al., 2014;Ginn et al., 2018;Farrier, 2020). ...
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... The removal of these underground monuments was suspended due to their location in the dune protection zone. The special status made the excavation of these "technofossils" (Zalasiewicz et al. 2014) linger in a political limbo state, facing normative contradiction between the requirement to clean up the contaminated area and restriction on physical removal of the containers due to the provisioned harm it might cause for the coastal biotope. ...
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The new geological epoch defined by hu/man brings an end to the modern narrative and worldview of an independent anthropological agent who thrives on the passive and unlimited resources of nature and thus, one day, will transcend planetary boundaries to become truly liberated. Counterintuitively to its name, this new planetary time unit is characterized by a critical situation of formerly separated entities, hu/man and earth, which now prove to be inextricably bound together but struggle to find a common and thus livable ground. By taking ground (stemming from Greek pédon) in the sense of earth, soil and bedrock as a literally and materially relevant contact zone of our current geo-historical transformation, alternative relationships of mankind and planet can be developed. Especially the notion layers of time allows for a useful approach to both forms of horizontal manifestation, geological and historical strata, which express the interdependent reality or co-constructive worlding in the age of Anthropocene. Thus, the Anthropocene indicates an ambivalent and yet undefined dynamic for the planet and its inhabitants, since extensive geoengineering, the excavation and penetration of ground, signifies the undertaking of hu/man to realize dominance over the planet, while myriad human trace fossils are giving an ominous sign of mankind’s wasteful and self-destructive lifestyle, signaling an imminent return to the earth it originally emerged from.
Thesis
This thesis provides an account of the ongoing effort to define the Anthropocene as a formal geological unit. Coined in 2000 by the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, the term ‘Anthropocene’ has become symptomatic of a critical-theoretical zeitgeist: from a warning concerning the “deep time” effects of anthropogenic climate change, to an epistemological critique of the “human subject”. It is a theme that has taken on significance in critical legal theory as well. I respond to these debates, focusing on a component of the Anthropocene thematic that is often overlooked: the political, legislative, and historical dynamics of geology as a scientific discipline. Beginning in the seventeenth century, techniques such as fossil correlation and the relative ordering of earth’s material deposits have redefined understandings of scriptural authority, bringing geoscience to bear on the predominant existential reckonings of the day. Since 2008, the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), a team of geologists, Earth System scientists, historians, and also including a lawyer, have been compiling a proposal to include an Anthropocene unit within the Geological Time Scale, the formal guide for the designation of time and space over 4.5 billion years of earth history. Folding contemporary concerns and events into transhistorical deep time, the AWG’s formalization effort can be seen as an attempt to advance novel strategies of geoscientific classification in a manner continuous with contemporary social anxieties. Engaging the formalisation effort as a legislative exercise, I provide a genealogical account of the evaluative procedures in which the formalization of an Anthropocene unit is situated, and engage participant observation of the AWG, tracking the controversies, negotiations, and procedures involved in their effort to ratify a new geological unit. Ultimately, I argue that the effort to define an Anthropocene unit unfolds as a process of refiguring the significance of geoscience in society.
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Apple's AirPods have helped forge a multibillion-dollar market for true wireless hearable devices. The article employs media geology and political ecology to argue that AirPods exemplify the Capitalocene, a time where a planetary sociotechnical system based on ecologically unequal exchange benefits a privileged minority of humans while inflicting significant harms to humans and ecosystems that will persist across inhuman temporalities. These harms are inequitably distributed and are not typically experienced by those who can afford luxury items such as AirPods. While digital technologies are often mistaken for dematerialised objects that will enable infinite economic growth on a materially finite planet, examining the flows of energy, matter, labour and knowledge required for the production and maintenance of these devices comprehensively refutes these claims. AirPods are designed to function for just eighteen to thirty-six months of daily use before planned obsolescence renders AirPods as long-lived, toxic, electronic waste. Pending ‘right to repair’ legislation should prohibit the production of irreparable digital devices such as AirPods, as the right to repair an irreparable device is effectively meaningless.
Chapter
The rapid global spread of the Anthropocene concept across disciplines, languages, cultures and religions has been extraordinary and is unique in scientific history for a basic concept.
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We consider the Anthropocene as a physical, chronostratigraphic unit across terrestrial and marine sedimentary facies, from both a present and a far future perspective, provisionally using an approximately 1950 CE base that approximates with the 'Great Acceleration', worldwide sedimentary incorporation of A-bomb-derived radionuclides and light nitrogen isotopes linked to the growth in fertilizer use, and other markers. More or less effective recognition of such a unit today (with annual/decadal resolution) is facies-dependent and variably compromised by the disturbance of stratigraphic superposition that commonly occurs at geologically brief temporal scales, and that particularly affects soils, deep marine deposits and the pre-1950 parts of current urban areas. The Anthropocene, thus, more than any other geological time unit, is locally affected by such blurring of its chronostratigraphic boundary with Holocene strata. Nevertheless, clearly separable representatives of an Anthropocene Series may be found in lakes, land ice, certain river/delta systems, in the widespread dredged parts of shallow-marine systems on continental shelves and slopes, and in those parts of deep-water systems where human-rafted debris is common. From a far future perspective, the boundary is likely to appear geologically instantaneous and stratigraphically significant.
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Recognition of intimate feedback mechanisms linking changes across the atmosphere, biosphere, geosphere and hydrosphere demonstrates the pervasive nature of humankind's influence, perhaps to the point that we have fashioned a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. To what extent will these changes be evident as long-lasting signatures in the geological record? To establish the Anthropocene as a formal chronostratigraphical unit it is necessary to consider a spectrum of indicators of anthropogenically induced environmental change, and to determine how these show as stratigraphic signals that can be used to characterize an Anthropocene unit and to recognize its base. It is important to consider these signals against a context of Holocene and earlier stratigraphic patterns. Here we review the parameters used by stratigraphers to identify chronostratigraphical units and how these could apply to the definition of the Anthropocene. The onset of the range of signatures is diachronous, although many show maximum signatures which post-date 1945, leading to the suggestion that this date may be a suitable age for the start of the Anthropocene.
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The deliberate anthropogenic movement of reworked natural and novel manufactured materials represents a novel sedimentary environment associated with mining, waste disposal, construction and urbanization. Anthropogenic deposits display distinctive engineering and environmental properties, and can be of archaeological importance. This paper shows that temporal changes in the scale and lithological character of anthropogenic deposits may be indicative of the Anthropocene. However, the stratigraphy of such deposits is not readily described by existing classification schemes, which do not differentiate separate phases or lithologically distinct deposits beyond a local scale. Lithostratigraphy is a scalable, hierarchical classification used to distinguish successive and lithologically distinct natural deposits. Many natural and anthropogenic deposits exhibit common characteristics; they typically conform to the Law (or Principle) of Superposition and exhibit lithological distinction. The lithostratigraphical classification of surficial anthropogenic deposits may be effective, although defined units may be significantly thinner and far less continuous than those defined for natural deposits. Further challenges include the designation of stratotypes, accommodating the highly diachronous nature of anthropogenic deposits and the common presence of disconformities. International lithostratigraphical guidelines would require significant modification before being effective for the classification of anthropogenic deposits. A practical alternative may be to establish an ‘anthrostratigraphical’ approach, or ‘anthrostratigraphy’.
Article
The technosphere, the interlinked set of communication, transportation, bureaucratic and other systems that act to metabolize fossil fuels and other energy resources, is considered to be an emerging global paradigm, with similarities to the lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. The technosphere is of global extent, exhibits large-scale appropriation of mass and energy resources, shows a tendency to co-opt for its own use information produced by the environment, and is autonomous. Unlike the older paradigms, the technosphere has not yet evolved the ability to recycle its own waste stream. Unless or until it does so, its status as a paradigm remains provisional. Humans are 'parts' of the technosphere-subcomponents essential for system function. Viewed from the inside by its human parts, the technosphere is perceived as a derived and controlled construct. Viewed from outside as a geological phenomenon, the technosphere appears as a quasi-autonomous system whose dynamics constrains the behaviour of its human parts. A geological perspective on technology suggests why strategies to limit environmental damage that consider only the needs of people are likely to fail without parallel consideration of the requirements of technology, especially its need for an abundant supply of energy.
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Rapid and sustained biotic diversification (“Ordovician radiation”) to reach highest diversity levels for Paleozoic; prolonged “hot-house” climate punctuated by “ice-house” intervals and oceanic turnover; strong fluctuations in eustatic level, global glaciation, and mass extinction at end of period; appearance and evolution of pandemic planktonic graptolites and conodonts important for correlation; moderate to strong benthic faunal provincialism; re-organization and rapid migration of tectonic plates surrounding the Iapetus Ocean; migration of South Pole from North Africa to central Africa, all characterize the Ordovician period. HISTORY AND SUBDIVISIONS Named after the Ordovices, a northern Welsh tribe, the Ordovician was proposed as a new system by Lapworth in 1879. It was a compromise solution to the controversy over strata in North Wales that had been included by Adam Sedgwick in his Cambrian System but which were also included by Murchison as constituting the lower part of his Silurian System. Although it was initially slow to be accepted in Britain, where it was instead generally called Lower Silurian well into the twentieth century, the Ordovician was soon recognized and used elsewhere, such as in the Baltic region and Australia.
Article
Palaeontology formed the basis for defining most of the geological eras, periods, epochs and ages that are commonly recognized. By the same token, the Anthropocene can be defined by diverse palaeontological criteria, in accordance with commonly accepted biostratigraphic practice. The most useful Anthropocene biostratigraphic zones will be assemblage and abundance zones based on mixes of native and non-native species in both the marine and terrestrial realms, although lineage zones based on evolution of crop plants may also have utility. Also useful are human-produced trace fossils, which have resulted in prominent biohorizons that can mark the onset of the Anthropocene, especially the paved road system, widespread through terrestrial regions, and microplastics, ubiquitous in near-shore and deep-water marine sediments. Most of these palaeontological criteria support placing the Holocene-Anthropocene boundary near 1950. Continuation of current extinction rates would produce an extinction biohorizon on the scale of the Big Five mass extinctions within a few centuries, but enhanced conservation measures could prevent making mass extinction an Anthropocene signature. A grand challenge for palaeontologists now is to define Anthropocene biostratigraphic zones rigorously, not only as a necessary precursor to formalizing the epoch, but also to more fully understand how humans have restructured the biosphere.