Do 100 or 1000 years old fossils exist?

(William DeJong) #1

In normal circumstances, dead organisms are digested by micro-organisms within weeks, months or a few years, and disappear. Fossilization can only happen in catastrophic circumstances, when a dead organism is sealed airtight by loads of earth material, preventing its destruction by micro-organisms.

QUESTION: Do we have examples, for instance from forensic science, historical science or archeology, of fossilized organisms of which can be proven they died during the past 100 or 1000 years?


Catastrophic circumstances are not required. An organism can die and sink into deep water (or other low oxygen environment) which has a low oxygen content. This prevents rapid decay while the body is covered with sediment.

Did see this in a science magazine article on man made fossils.

I have heard of a forensic science research lab that leaves bodies exposed to the weather to identify how long decomposition takes, insect activity, etc. I think it is called the Body Farm. But they are only looking at short periods of time.

(Steve Schaffner) #3

Pedantic note: in technical use, “fossil” means any trace older than 10,000 years left behind by an organism.


There are probably dead organisms (including insects trapped in amber and frozen critters), footprints, etc. around that will be fossils in the future. Many fossils we have found have generally been buried a long time. Then the area undergoes uplift, and eventually erosion exposes them for happy fossil hunters to find. It’s a long process.

(Lynn Munter) #5

A dead organism can be preserved (mummified) in any circumstance where the environment is sufficiently inhospitable to microorganisms: lack of heat (frozen in ice), lack of water (dried in a desert), or lack of oxygen (tar pits, peat bogs, deep lakes or oceans).

Of these, perhaps conditions which would mummify bodies in deserts or on high mountains would be insufficient for fossilization because the mineralization would require more material to bury them with than is likely to appear? And I don’t know how likely the transition from frozen in ice to buried in earth would be. But I think your use of the word catastrophic is overblown.

(Phil) #6

I’ve heard where some things that fall into highly mineralized water look fossilized rather quickly, though I suspect are not truly fossilized. Otherwise, my showerhead would be one of the prize exhibits on “fossils out of place” on young earth websites.


Remember that a fossil is any trace of ancient life, no matter how it is preserved. Even an impression or a track can be a fossil. Completely frozen mammoths have been found before.

There is even Ötzi the Ice Man. (But he might not be old enough to be a fossil…yet).


(Lynn Munter) #8

Right, this is true. I was focused on correcting only one assumption of the OP.

Are there any frozen mammoths or other creatures more than 100,000 years old? I confess I don’t know!

(George Brooks) #9

I thought one type of fossil that might be easier to track in the internet would be fossils of Terror Birds…

They have been around for quite a while, but because they became extinct maybe as recently as 3 million years ago, there has been lots of work to find the final group of fossils representing the End State of Terror Birds.

I spotted a mention online …saying they found a terror bird fossil as young as 1 million years.

So … can we get the next kind of fossil down to 800,000 or 500,000 years?
It should be non-human fossil… so as not to overlap all the other efforts…

(James McKay) #10

I think it might be useful to re-phrase the OP’s question, since it’s somewhat ambiguous about exactly what he means by “fossil.”

The question would then be, do recently formed fossils exist in a similar state of preservation (in particular, permineralisation) to fossils typically found in Cretaceous or lower strata?

Of course, there is a caveat with such a question: even if the answer is “yes,” it would not be sufficient to prove that all such fossils had been formed recently. In lower strata, there are other indicators of great age besides permineralisation: for example, radiometric evidence, multiple alternating layers of evaporites and sedimentary deposits above them, and so on and so forth.

It certainly isn’t possible, for example, to get 100 or 1,000 year old zircon crystals with significant contents of helium or lead. Even if nuclear decay rates had been higher in the past (and such a proposition is science fiction anyway), they would have destroyed the zircons in the process.


I don’t know about any over 100,000 years old, but I saw parts of a young one that died ~21,000 years ago at the American Museum of Natural History in the fossil halls. It is described as

the mummified remains of “Effie,” a baby woolly mammoth found in an open-pit gold mine in Alaska in 1948. After Effie died about 21,000 years ago, its remains were preserved in the frozen ground.

There isn’t that much remaining to see–I do recall seeing the little trunk and some long hair. I think there are some that were found in better condition.

(Lynn Munter) #12

Yeah, mammoths can be really well-preserved—I’ve never forgotten the story of one that was ‘fresh’ enough to eat!

I looked up some dictionary definitions and I think “fossilization” as OP used it may be correctly referring to the process of mineralization (petrifaction or petrification), as opposed to the noun “fossil.”

(Lynn Munter) #13

Wikipedia says silicification can occur in 50,000 years or less and cites this article, which I have not had time to read in depth:

You could also argue that volcanic casts or molds (think Pompeii) would be considered fossils if they were 100,000 years old or older, I suppose.

(George Brooks) #14

Okay… this one is pretty darn recent …

20,000 year mastodon fossils, professionally tested, found in an unspecified location in California.
As with other finds, the mastodon died and was preserved in a cold climate.

So if you can keep alert to fossils of warm-weather creatures … like rhinos, or vultures.
Naturally those are going to be more rare…

But I just had a thought … sometimes a journalist might call something a fossil that is really a bone!
So we have to stay alert on terminology…


True. The Hominid Trackway at Laetoli in Tanzania is an example of this.

(William DeJong) #16

Hi folks,

Thanks for your reactions.

Fossilization is a process in which the organic molecules of a dead organism are replaced by inorganic molecules from the earth material that covers it. The dead organism can only be transformed by this fossilization process into a fossil, if it is covered airtight. Otherwise it will be digested by micro-organisms within a short time and disappear, and no fossil can be formed.

I understand that in a some science magazine, a dr. Briggs has reported that he can produce fossils in a laboratory. What I would like to see is empirical evidence that in normal circumstances fossils are still being formed on a daily basis. I am skeptical about that, because normally dead organisms never end up in an airtight environment, or in an environment without micro-organisms. Therefore, I repeat my question:

“Do we have real life examples, for instance from forensic science, historical science or archeology, of fossilized organisms that can be proven to have died during the past 100 or 1000 years?”

Notice: A man conserved in ice, or an ant conserved in amber, is not fossilized, and therefore no fossil.

(Christy Hemphill) #17

We still have deep lakes, oceans, peat bogs, tar pits… Why would you assume no organisms are in the process of being fossilized there?


If I might ask. Why are you interested in this?

Sedimentary rock is currently being formed every day so any animal that gets buried is going to turn into a fossil given enough time. Fossils are found when the sedimentary rock is uplifted and then expose by erosion so any fossil currently being formed is not going to be visible and therefore will remain “undiscovered”.

Not exactly. Dr. Briggs work has shown that for small animals the required minerals actually come from the body of the animal.

As several people have already pointed out this is NOT a requirement to generate a fossil. Also remember that what is usually mineralized is the hard parts of the animal that don’t decay as rapidly as the soft tissues.

And yet the YEC folks say all (or most) of the fossils were created after the flood. Where was the airtight environment for that?


I think it would be more accurate to say that there are many processes that produce fossils. For example, there is permineralization which replaces organic molecules with inorganic elements. You can also have situations where the sediments the organism is buried in forms a cast around the organism, and then the organism decays over time and goes away. This produces a void in the sediment which is then later filled by minerals that seep into the void and harden. If memory serves, this is how opalized fossils are form:

There are also situations where the original organic material is preserved in situ. The oft mentioned dinosaur soft tissue is an example of this.

The anoxic bottom of lakes across the world are all prime examples of places where organisms can be preserved and can later be dug up as fossils. The Black Sea is a famous example of a lake with anoxic waters which results in a high degree of preservation. There are also catastrophic processes that can quickly bury organisms, such as volcanic lahars. There are also things like mudslides which can quickly bury organisms.


If it’s old enough it is a fossil. A fossil is any trace of ancient life.