Sciency Words: Holocene (An A to Z Challenge Post)

Today’s post is a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words, an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at some interesting science or science related term so we can all expand our scientific vocabularies together. In today’s post, H is for:


Real dinosaur fans can tell you that dinosaurs lived in the Mesozoic Era, a geological era that is subdivided into the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods.

Real fans of humans can tell you that humans live in the Cenozoic Era, in a subdivision called the Quaternary Period, in a further subdivision known as the Holocene Epoch—a name which can be translated from Greek to mean “entirely recently.” Again, scientists, you can be more creative than that.

This “entirely recent” epoch began approximately 11,700 years ago, a time which corresponds loosely to the end of the most recent ice age and also corresponds loosely to what archeologists call the mid to late Stone Age.

Major developments during the Holocene include melting glaciers, the extinction of animals like the woolly mammoth and saber-toothed tiger, and of course the rise and spread of human civilization.

The Holocene ends with… well, obviously we don’t know how it ends. Or maybe we do.

There’s an ongoing debate among geologists about whether or not the Holocene has ended already. Some say a new geological epoch—called the Anthropocene—has begun. Anthropocene is derived from the Greek word for human, and it would be characterized by the effects human activities are having on the geology of this planet.

The International Commission on Stratigraphy is in charge of naming geological time periods and defining their start and end points, and the I.C.S. has a working group studying the Holocene vs. Anthropocene issue.

If the Anthropocene is accepted as an official geological epoch by the I.C.S., then the Holocene may have ended about two hundred years ago with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. There’s an alternative proposal that would have the Holocene end in the mid-20th Century with the dawn of the nuclear age, because changing levels of radioisotopes in rock strata would make the boundary between the two epochs easier to identify. And there’s a proposal to make the Anthropocene a subdivision within the Holocene, rather than making it its own separate epoch.

Whatever the I.C.S. decides to do, their decision will probably be controversial. But it won’t be the first time an international organization like this stirred up controversy over how to define scientific terms. More on that tomorrow.

10 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Holocene (An A to Z Challenge Post)

  1. Interesting read. Regarding your last remark about controversial changes in scientific terms, I can still remember when the International Astronomical Union classified/downgraded Pluto into a dwarf planet — that made me sad and mad!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the most interesting thing about the Holocene, the period containing the entire history human civilization, is that it represents only the last 0.00026% of Earth’s ~4.54 billion year history. Heck, it only represents the last 6% of the 200,000 or so years that anatomically modern humans have been around.

    Make me wonder what things might be like when humanity is 10% older, or even way farther out when the Earth is 0.1% older.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, that’s one of the things that kind of bothers me about declaring that it’s over and the Anthropocene has begun. The Holocene would end up being a tiny, tiny sliver of our planet’s geological history. I guess if the geologic changes to our planet are dramatic enough to justify it, then it shouldn’t matter how short the Holocene would be. But it just feels awkward to me to do it that way.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Nothing like getting scientific committees together to decide on a name or term.

    Let the people who are around ten thousand years from now make the decision. They’ll have a much better viewpoint.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah it seems a little strange trying to describe such “entirely recent” events in terms of geologic history. On the other hand if the new terminology is actually helpful for geologists writing their papers, then maybe it makes sense. I don’t know. I guess we’ll just wait and see what the I.C.S decides.


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