The Holocene Epoch is over, let’s move on

The Holocene Epoch is over, and a new epoch needs to be declared, it was announced at the International Geological Congress in Capetown, South Africa, on August 29 2016. It is to be called the Anthropocene, and will directly follow the Holocene, which began approximately 11,500 years ago with the end of the last ice age and the dawn of human civilisation.

Many different dates have been put forward for the start of the Anthropocene, including the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century, but one of the most popular views is that the new epoch should be stated to begin around 1945–50. It would likely be defined by atomic bomb tests that dispersed radioactive elements around the globe. But that is not the only signal of the new epoch.

Other major elements include the proliferation of plastic waste, pollutant emissions from fossil fuel, and the spread of concrete and other non-life bearing materials over the planet. There are also less obvious signs of dramatic change, such as the domestication of the humble chicken, which has resulted in massive piles of bones, beaks and clawed feet being deposited in the earth. The Anthropocene has added surprisingly different layers to the geological history of the planet which are not plant based or made of natural materials.

The preceding Holocene is a geological record of the rise of humans, their civilisations and their farming practices that saw major changes to the ecology of the planet. It encompasses the change from nomadic to settled lifestyles, and the rise of civilisations such as Sumeria, Greece, Rome and Ancient Egypt, plus their fall. It encompasses wars, plagues, religions and natural disasters such as Pompeii and Krakatoa. It includes fashion, from the ice man Oetzi’s goatskins to Dior’s New Look. It spans cave art to Michelangelo, bone flutes to rock and roll, the wheel to the Oldsmobile.

During this time humans only threw away what they could no longer use or repair. Archaeology grew out of what humans chose to discard, leaving behind a tangible history of their lives. These traces told stories of how they lived, what they valued, what they wanted to be. Archaeology has uncovered fabled treasures from royal tombs, graceful painted walls and tiled floors and items of great beauty as well as the humbler artifacts of the cottage hearth.

Layer by layer, the earth has preserved history from the time before history, and it has preserved the timelines of our human history. But archaeologists of the future will find a very different legacy of the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene will not leave a fascinating historical record, or even break down waste into something future generations will exploit. Our modern waste will simply continue to exist in layers of toxic landfill, leaching out mercury, arsenic and other poisons sealed under barriers of rubber, clay and plastic to keep them from contaminating soil and waterways. The AWG, a group of experts commissioned by the International Union of Geological Sciences, has concluded that the earth "is so profoundly changed" that the Holocene must now give way to the new epoch.