The discovery of the preserved remains of a once-living creature entombed within stone for millions of years is as intriguing as it is unique. However, Richard Fisher wonders if there is a way to increase our chances of being fossilised and unearthed in the future.
This is a trilobite, a woodlouse-like creature with bulbous eyes, spindly legs, and a horseshoe crab’s head, sitting on my desk as I write. I’m glad it died millions of years ago, because if it were still alive today, it’d probably freak me out. I believe it was a creature that fled.
Since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by fossils like this, collecting several ammonites, a flattened fish, dinosaur vertebrae, and various other organisms from the distant past. What I like about them is how they can take your mind away from the present moment: each one is a window into a time and place that no longer exists. Looking at these prehistoric creatures and imagining how they lived, I’ve often wondered what palaeontologists in the distant future would think of the fossils of the twenty-first century: blue whales, elephants, grizzly bears… humans.
This daydream has frequently made me wonder if I, too, might end up preserved and mineralised, like my pet trilobite.
I recently had the opportunity to seek answers. My editor once asked me what it would take to fossilise a person, such as a journalist.
So, if I set out to be fossilised, how can I improve my chances of success? Where should I go in the world? Which of my body parts, my bones, skin, and muscles, or my toes, would last the longest? Is it possible to accelerate or artificially tweak the process?
I had a rough idea of how fossilisation works when I first started, and luckily, BBC Future had published a seven-step guide that answered some of my basic questions. But I quickly realised that I needed specific professional advice from a palaeontologist. I contacted Jakob Vinther, a macroevolutionary professor at the University of Bristol who studies highly detailed, exceptional specimens such as feathered dinosaurs and the pigments they left behind.
Vinther had already thought a lot about how to fossilise himself (he’s thinking about writing a book about it), so he was the perfect person to ask. To him, it is a serious question worth investigating for reasons other than morbid curiosity. Thinking more deeply about how our own bodies may fossilise could help people understand what is lost during the process. “We are flesh and blood, and we have things that fossilise and things that don’t,” he says.
“If we could translate ourselves and what we would look like as a fossil, it might be possible for people to better reverse-engineer another organism into a flesh-and-blood living being that once existed.” After all, no fossil provides a comprehensive picture. “Many dinosaur reconstructions look very freaky because they’re ‘shrink-wrapped’. “People just have the skeleton and then put some flesh on the outside,” he says. This entails making educated guesses about appearance and behaviour.
But the first thing Vinther told me was bad news. It’s extremely unlikely that either of us will become a fossil that future generations discover.” It necessitates extraordinary measures. If we are buried whole in ordinary soil, our bones may live for 100 years. “We often need better conditions if we want to preserve skeletons for much longer than that,” he says.
Indeed, the vast majority of species that have ever existed are not represented in the fossil record – species, not organisms. It means that there were once entire populations of animals on Earth that vanished without a trace. “Fossils provide such an extraordinary, but incomplete, glimpse into past diversity,” he says.
Finally, even if Vinther or I were to fossilise, it’s unlikely that either of us would ever be discovered by a person, and not just because it takes intelligent beings with rock hammers to be interested. Trillions of fossils are still trapped deep underground, and will only be discovered if the rocks containing them are uplifted and exposed – and, crucially, not broken up by the ocean, weather, or natural erosion before discovery.
However, it is not completely impossible. So, how did this happen?
Location, location, location
First and foremost, don’t worry – I’m not planning anything morbid. I’m just looking into my potential options so I can maximise my chances of being completely fossilised.
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The “subfossil” route is one way to accomplish this. There are a few places on Earth that promise longer-term preservation – at least long enough for a future archaeologist to be interested.
To begin, I could try to freeze somewhere cold and stable. After all, prehistoric people, such as Oetzi, who lived around 5,000 years ago, have been discovered inside Alpine glaciers. Or I could go lie down in a desert cave, as long as I kept scavengers at bay. Ancient remains dating back up to 10,000 years have been discovered in dry caves in Peru. There are also peat bogs.
Occasionally, a “bog body” from thousands of years ago is discovered in peat – The Lindow man, discovered in north-west England in the 1980s, was sometimes the unfortunate victim of a ritual sacrifice. He lived around the same time as the Romans and had his soft tissue preserved due to the sphagnum moss and the unique chemical environment of the peat. I wouldn’t even have to travel far for this: the New Forest mires, about 80 miles (125 kilometres) from London, are among the closest peat bogs to me.
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