Where have all the cities gone?

As the writer of stories about a lost civilization from the Age of Dinosaurs, I’m sometimes asked, “If there really was a civilization at the end of the Cretaceous Era, why has no one ever dug up a fossil clue to its existence?” That’s a fair question, but not as difficult to answer as you might imagine.

In my Dinosaur Wars novels and Dinosaur Tales short stories, I present the notion that there once was an intelligent species of dinosaur that became advanced enough to travel into space and then return 65 million years after their asteroid-mediated extinction, to reclaim their home world here on earth. Human beings, having evolved their own civilization in the meantime are to them just an inconvenient bunch of interlopers in the world they wish to own again. We think a lot of ourselves, but to them we’re just vermin to be exterminated or perhaps, er, um, well, eaten for dinner–or fed to their exceedingly voracious tyrannosaurian pets.

But I digress. Let’s take a look at the question of how a 65-million-year-old civilization could vanish, leaving no detectable trace. The best model is of course our own upstart civilization. If an asteroid dropped from the heavens tomorrow and exterminated us humans, what might some other species find 65 million years from now?

First of all, consider the fact that we don’t tend to build cities in environments where fossilization occurs. If a major metropolis like New York or Los Angeles were abandoned for millions of years, what would be left? Erosion works over centuries to turn the stone cliffs of mountain ranges into sand and dust. Buildings are just big stacks of stone, iron and glass. All of these materials would eventually just weather away, turning to sand, dust and a little rusty iron ore. And in New York’s case, another Ice Age might come along and a glacier or two would grind the whole place into tiny pulverized bits and pieces. Not much left to find.

What about other artifacts? Even the mighty hulk of the Titanic, lying on the Atlantic Ocean bottom, has begun to corrode away in less than a century. Given another couple hundred years, it will be no more than an orangey smear on the ocean floor.

Now, there are a few cities that might stand a chance of fossilization. New Orleans nearly became a fossil, in fact, when hurricane Katrina struck and swamped the place. If heroic measures hadn’t been taken to resurrect the Big Easy, then the Mississippi River would have dumped its sediments on the submerged parts of town and fossilization would have begun. But here’s the catch: there’s another major issue with fossils, namely, that most of them are still buried and won’t be found until they erode back out of where they have been buried. So who knows, maybe there is a lost dinosaurian New Orleans buried out there in the world somewhere, but until it comes to light, we’re stuck with the fact that exactly zero 65-million-year-old cities are known at present.

But what if we just found some artifact of civilization, not the whole bloomin’ thing? Some widget or gadget that managed to get preserved in 65-million-year-old sediments? One problem in that case might be whether or not to believe it. In the creationism/evolution debates that rage these days, there are a number of creationists who go to great lengths to point out human artifacts that are found below dinosaur bones in various geological settings, thereby claiming that humans and dinosaurs coexisted before the Great Flood. Their geological arguments are flawed, of course, but they persist and have many followers. So who knows, maybe some Cretaceous gear or sprocket or bedspring has already turned up, only to get swept into those debates, becoming a curio rather than a scientifically documented case-in-point.

So there you have it: extreme rarity of preservation of anything from 65 million years ago, combined with confusion over the few artifacts that might be found, would result in the public being unaware of any notion of dinosaurian civilization until the heroes of the Dinosaur Wars stories were confronted with a nasty new reality: Dinosaurs were civilized, and… they’re back!

About Tom Hopp

Thomas P Hopp is a scientist and author living in Seattle. He writes medical thrillers, natural disaster novels, and the Dinosaur Wars science fiction series.
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2 Responses to Where have all the cities gone?

  1. Inferdramon says:

    This reminds me of a discussion that occurred on a messageboard I go to. There was this debate on ancient civilizations, and whether or not something like dinosaurs could have advanced technology could have existed. Some members believed it was impossible, while others did see the possibility.

    I believe one of the members mentioned a program called After People, or something to that effect. I forget the exact name, but it detailed a world where humans are long gone and shows what the world looks like during the following centuries or more. The member noted that constructions, after enough time, would indeed erode away and that there would be no evidence left.

    I forget how the topic ended though, so I couldn’t tell you if that bit of info convinced anyone of the possibility or not.

    • Tom Hopp says:

      Life After People. Yes, it was a good series although as an action adventure writer I found it a little lacking in the critical area of human interest. To my way of thinking, you’ve gotta have some human heroes like my Kit Daniels and Chase Armstrong falling in love while they’re fighting for survival, to make the story really hum along. But you’re right that Life After People gives a good look at what would happen if humanity suddenly disappeared. All our great works, cities, technology, and accomplishments would crumble to dust and the surviving creatures would become the inheritors of the earth. So the idea is a good one but hard to keep interesting because, with all the people missing, there just isn’t anyone to pin your hopes on.

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