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How to Become a Fossil in Five Easy Steps

Tricks to preserving your bones for future archaeologists

(Paul Souders/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Have you ever found yourself standing in a museum, gazing up at the skeleton of a mighty T-Rex with envy and thought “one day, that’ll be me”? Becoming a fossil is a quick and effortless way to become a global superstar. But just how do you become one? Here are five simple ways to increase the chances that your bones could one day find a home next to a velociraptor.

Step One: Be a Human

Congratulations! If you’re a human, you’re a step ahead of the game, writes Dan Nosowitz for Atlas Obscura. When it comes to fossilization, not all creatures are created equal; it takes hard body parts, like bones and teeth, that will survive long enough to even begin to fossilize.

“Mammals have a very good record, because teeth make fantastic fossils,” Mark Norell, chair of the paleontology department at the American Museum of Natural History tells Nosowitz. “They're incredibly hard, incredibly resilient. Most of the fossils we find of mammals are teeth.”

Other animals aren't so lucky, says Norell — fossilized birds are some of the rarest paleontological finds because their bones are so fragile. Yet another reason to schedule that dentist appointment.

Step Two: Get Buried

The second step is the most important to the fossilization process, Nosowitz writes. You’ll have to find a way to preserve your body for the next 10,000 years before you’ll be considered a fossil. Before that milestone, your bones are considered remains or evidence. It’s very rare to be buried quickly enough for a body to be preserved, so keep an eye out for natural disasters like volcanic eruptions and flooding streams, which can help by burying you in ash or engulfing your body in sediment.

If you can’t find a volcano nearby, the next best thing is a traditional underground burial. It turns out that human burial rites are a very effective way to prep a body for the thousands of years the fossilization process takes to work its magic. Most animals that die where they stand get picked apart by scavengers and torn apart by the elements. But burying bodies in coffins protects them from the first few years on their way to becoming a fossil, writes Nosowitz:

“We can look at graves from the Medieval period, 500, 600 years ago, that have been exhumed, and the caskets have decomposed but the bodies are usually in pretty good shape,” says Norell. We are, effectively, performing our own rapid burial procedures that normally would have to come from extraordinary natural events.

Step Three: Pick a Nice Plot

Pro-tip for the aspiring fossil: pick a place that won’t have too many natural disasters that could mess up that perfectly preserved skeleton of yours. While it may be harder to find a burial site free from fault lines or flooding if you choose to go the sudden burial route, you’ll stand a better chance of your fossilized skeleton being found if it’s not buried by tectonic shifts or washed away by running water. The best spot, according to Nosowitz? Try the Midwest:

“You can't really predict what's going to happen in the future,” says Norell, “but an ideal kind of place would be someplace out on the Great Plains.” It’s got everything: it’s tectonically stable, well-drained, with few major rivers running through it. It’s likely to stay the way it is for quite a long time. “Those sorts of habitats, we know from excavating animals all over the world, are most likely to preserve fossils,” says Norell.

Step Four: Trade Those Guts for Crystals

Your intestines are just going to block the view of your pelvis: why not trade them for longer-lasting crystals and minerals? Most fossils are formed when mineral-rich water mixes with an animal’s remains that replace its cells over time, hardening until the corpse becomes rock-hard.

“Imagine a deflating balloon that you fill slowly, as slowly as it deflates, with molten metal,” writes Nosowitz. “Eventually the balloon will be not really a balloon anymore, but it will still have the shape of a balloon--and it’ll be much, much more sturdy than it ever was during its time as a flimsy structure of air and rubber.”

Congratulations! You’ve made it this far - there’s just one last thing.

Step Five: Be Incredibly Lucky

When it comes down to it, you never know whether you’ll be one of the lucky few to be fossilized. Despite the extensive fossil record that archeologists have discovered beneath the surface of the earth, Norell says that represents the tiniest fraction of a fraction of a fraction of all the animals that have ever lived on this planet.

“Most things just don’t preserve,” Norell tells Nosowitz. “It’s a very rare event to become a fossil.”

Norell says that there’s a pretty minimal chance of a human becoming a famous fossil in the distant future. But just because it’s incredibly unlikely to happen to you doesn’t mean it’s impossible: just make sure to be buried in the Midwest with a full set of teeth.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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