PART IV: ORIGINS
by Anthony Forwood (2011)
28: Fossils and Mummies
The lack of fossilized or mummified human specimens is something that evolutionary scientists, archeologists, and anthropologists have just had to bear while trying to piece together our human origins. It’s estimated that only about three percent of all fossils that exist in the Earth have ever been discovered. That there are so few specimens to be found is due to the fact that fossilization and mummification are not common occurrences, and require that the specimen has been protected in some way from the processes that normally break down organic substances. Fossils found in rock strata are the most common type of specimen, because they’ve been preserved by sedimentary substances that later formed into rock. Oceanic fossils are so much more common than any other type because sea creatures, particularly hard-shelled crustaceans, leave their carcasses on the ocean floor, where they become buried in sand and sediments, which are packed down with more layers over time and undergo great pressure from the weight bearing on them. This pressure packs the sedimentation firmly around them, assuring that they aren’t disturbed from their watery graves. Eventually, the ocean floor becomes dry land through geophysical processes, being pushed up to form great mountain ranges. It is therefore not at all unusual to find fossils of sea creatures in rocks found high atop mountain peaks.
Apart from fossils that are preserved in ocean sediment, the next most commonly found specimens are those that were caused by an unprecedented cataclysmic event that occurred in the Earth’s history. This event caused the extinction of almost all life on this planet some sixty-five million years ago. Because of the nature of this event, which created massive amounts of mud and volcanic ash, sedimentary conditions were perfect for fossilization, and many creatures, including the dinosaurs, became entombed in muddy graves where many of their bones became fossilized, and have been preserved for all these ages.
By far, the majority of fossil specimens that are to be found have been caused by either ocean sedimentation or the sixty-five million year old cataclysm of the dinosaur age. Apart from these two primary sources for fossils, other occurrences of fossilization are quite rare. Special conditions are required for fossilization to occur. A dead carcass that’s left in the open environment is exposed to the ravages of weather, animals, insects, and microbial decomposition. Even if buried, moisture, insects, and microbes will assure that decomposition occurs. Isolation from the creatures that help in the normal decomposition process, as rare as that would be, is still no guarantee that fossilization will occur. Heat, wind, moisture, and radioactive bombardment can all aid in the decomposition process. There aren’t very many places on our planet devoid of these factors. Only a few situations, such as total immersion in sedimentary mud or clay, are conducive to fossilization. The chance of a carcass ending up in such a situation is limited to such things as being buried in a mudslide or falling into a mud-filled hole. These sorts of situations occur often enough, but for fossilization to occur, the right conditions must prevail for hundreds or thousands of years.
Apart from fossils, mummified human specimens are also used for charting evolutionary and cultural history. Mummified remains are less common than fossils, and are produced only under equally rare conditions. Natural mummification occurs most often through long exposure to wind in cold, dry climates, which effectively dehydrates the carcass while the cold temperature keeps normal decomposition in check. Unlike fossils, mummified specimens can still decompose once they’re exposed to warmer temperatures, so they won’t necessarily survive if the cold climate that they’re in warms up at some point.
If we consider this last point in regards to the last ice age, we can understand why there are not thousands of mummified human specimens to be found from that period or before. Although many people would obviously have died from the extreme conditions they were forced to live in, even if their bodies had mummified, the eventual warmer temperatures would have likely caused them to decompose, or melting snow and ice might have caused them to be washed away into the ocean.
The best mummified specimens we have for study are those of people who were embalmed, which was a fairly common practice in some cultures that goes back to the Cro-Magnon period, but later seems to have been a practice usually reserved for royalty, such as the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.