On Fossil Pokémon

Let’s talk about fossil Pokémon.

Official art of (left to right) Kabuto, Kabutops, Omastar, and Omanyte, by Ken Sugimori; quoth the raven "copyright Nintendo!"
From left to right: Kabuto, Kabutops, Omastar and Omanyte

Ever since the glory days of Red and Blue, the scientists of the Pokémon world have been trying to resurrect ancient, extinct species of Pokémon from their fossilised remains – and, in many cases, they’ve succeeded.  Every generation except for the second has brought a new set of fossil Pokémon with it; Omastar, Kabutops and Aerodactyl from Red and Blue, Cradily and Armaldo from Ruby and Sapphire, Rampardos and Bastiodon from Diamond and Pearl, and now Archeops and Carracosta from Black and White.  One could also include, as an honourable mention, Ruby and Sapphire’s Relicanth, who, like his inspiration the coelacanth, is an extremely archaic species believed for many years to be extinct until a few were unexpectedly found very much alive in the deep ocean.  I talked about Archeops and Carracosta at some length when I was reviewing the Unova Pokédex last year, so there’s little point in discussing them further, and I’m not especially anxious to do detailed reviews on all of the others either when there are so many other projects on my list, but I do think it would be worthwhile to talk about them as a group, since the whole concept of a ‘fossil Pokémon’ is quite interesting, particularly with reference to the context in which Game Freak started using these ideas in the first place.

Red and Blue (or, rather, Red and Green) were first released in Japan in 1996.  Jurassic Park was released in 1993.  For those of my readership who have somehow managed to miss what Jurassic Park is about, it’s a film based on an earlier novel by Michael Crichton, which details the disastrous fate of a zoo-cum-theme park on an isolated island populated by dinosaurs cloned using DNA fragments preserved in the stomachs of mosquitoes trapped in fossilised amber.  This seems to be exactly the method used to resurrect Aerodactyl, since the item you need to turn over to the scientists in order to bring him back is Old Amber.  The other extinct Pokémon are brought back from fossils, but it seems likely that similar technology is being employed.  The presence of the Old Amber strongly suggests that the game designers had Jurassic Park in mind when they decided to include Aerodactyl (and possibly Kabuto and Omanyte) in Red and Blue, which actually says rather a lot about Pokémon’s underlying philosophy.  In Jurassic Park, as in many of Crichton’s works, science and technology are treated with a very cautious attitude; the book and the film are both essentially about the hubris of scientists in thinking they can control nature.  Fossil Pokémon, by contrast, never cause the kind of chaos that Crichton’s resurrected dinosaurs do; in fact they are immediately and totally obedient.  When Ash encounters the fossil Pokémon in the anime, they are depicted as dangerous and violent, but they aren’t associated with technology either – they’re imagined to have survived somehow, asleep beneath Grandpa Canyon, without any help from humans.  When fossil Pokémon actually are resurrected using technology, as in the more recent episode Archeops in the Modern World, they may cause trouble, but the event is still, ultimately, regarded as a positive experience for everyone.  Partly this is a reflection of Pokémon’s generally optimistic world view, but I think it also says something about the franchise’s stance on technology – namely, that scientific and technological advancement are, on the whole, miraculous and beneficial, and that the sky is the limit if we continue to develop in this direction.  Considering where Nintendo and Game Freak get most of their income, this is not exactly surprising, but I think it’s interesting, and kind of cool, that it’s possible to see the extent to which this position permeates their thinking and their world building.

Anorith, Armaldo, Cradily and Lileep.
From left to right: Anorith, Armaldo, Cradily and Lileep

So much for fossil Pokémon as an expression of the game designers’ goals and philosophy; let’s look at how they fit into the actual world of Pokémon itself.  In theory, fossil Pokémon provide a window into what Pokémon were like millions of years in the past, long before the birth of humanity.  In some cases, they are imagined to be the ancestors of modern Pokémon – this is a particularly important theme for Archeops, the ‘first bird’ Pokémon – while others seem to have simply died out without leaving any descendents, notably Omastar.  It’s difficult to construct a detailed evolutionary history out of these, since many of them are never given any dates, and most of the rest are connected with the suspiciously round number “one hundred million years ago” (it is common knowledge that “one hundred million years” is long enough that no-one who was around then will still be alive to call you out on anything).  You can, however, say some interesting things about the way their designs deal with the idea of evolution – for instance, to return to the Pokémon who prompted this article, Anorith re-enacts millions of years of evolution in the course of a single lifetime, in much the same way as Eevee does.  Something similar happens with Archen, who can’t fly, and ‘evolves’ that ability when he becomes Archeops.  What this brings to mind for me is the obsolete embryological theory that ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ – the idea that unborn embryos resemble their remote ancestors, and re-enact their own evolutionary history as they grow to maturity (this idea was popular in the early twentieth century but is now regarded as sketchy at best; however, if you’ve seen an image of a human embryo at its most basic stage, you can see why it held so much appeal – we do start off looking a lot like tadpoles).  For some species of Pokémon, this may actually be true – ancestral adaptations are retained in their DNA, and they progress from archaic forms to more modern ones as they age.  The sad irony of it is that, for some of them, that re-enactment represents not progress, but the adaptations that actually caused them to become extinct when their environments changed and they were no longer suited to the world around them.  Omanyte’s evolution to Omastar, for instance, shows the development of the species into a bulkier, more powerful form… but in the end, Omastar became extinct because their shells were too heavy for them to chase after prey (presumably, it was the extinction of the larger, slower prey animals he preferred that did him in).  Kabutops is a fast, powerful, and fearsome predator, but is now gone from the world entirely, while Kabuto still survive in the wild, if the anime is to be believed – and I suspect we can trust it on this, since Kabuto is based on an ancient species that still lives in the real world, the horseshoe crab (which, incidentally, is one of the most absurd yet awesome animals ever, and you should go and read about them on the internet as soon as you finish this entry).

Bastiodon, Shieldon, Cranidos and Rampardos.
From left to right: Bastiodon, Shieldon, Cranidos and Rampardos

It gets trickier when you try to join up the dots with the Pokémon we meet in the present day.  I talked about some of the questions the fossil Pokémon raise when I did Archeops last year (good heavens; it’s almost two years ago now…) – not least of which is the unusual implications of their typing.  All fossil Pokémon are Rock-types.  This is probably because, when the first fossil Pokémon were created, the designers unthinkingly said to themselves “well, of course they’re Rock-types; you resurrect them from fossils, and fossils are rocks!”  Does that mean that all ancient Pokémon are Rock-types?  Does it mean that Rock is the oldest element?  Does it mean, as I asked incredulously in Archeops’ article, that Pokémon originally evolved from rocks?  I was only half joking when I said that – it would go a long way towards explaining their interaction with evolutionary stones, how inorganic Pokémon like the Steel-types can exist, and potentially many of the other ways in which Pokémon act so differently to real animals.  As entertaining as it would be to pursue this conclusion, I think it probably goes beyond the bounds of what can be supported by our evidence.  More likely, I think, is the possibility that Rock Pokémon, with their bones and exoskeletons of stone, leave behind well-preserved remains even under conditions that would utterly destroy the bodies of less robust Pokémon.  As a result, the fossil record is overwhelmingly biased towards Rock Pokémon (this is, in fact, a very real problem in palaeontology – I’m pulling numbers out of the air here, but I’d say that for any given point in the Earth’s history we have fossils from, at best, 5% of the species that actually existed, and species with larger, stronger bones are much more likely to be preserved; small, delicate animals rarely get a look in, and you can forget about soft-bodied invertebrates).  This has some important implications for a question I answered a couple of weeks ago – what exactly is a type, and does sharing a common type indicate that two Pokémon share a common ancestry?  The obvious way of interpreting the fossil Pokémon – seeing Rock as the oldest element – suggests that type is a marker of evolutionary lineage, and that members of a single type are closely related.  Conversely, if we assume Rock Pokémon are just part of a wide range of species, of which only a few have left surviving remains, and look purely at the forms and designs of the fossil Pokémon, we see a history that looks suspiciously like that of our own world, with dinosaurs, feathered reptiles, pterosaurs, ammonites, and so on, probably implying that type has nothing to do with it.

Tirtouga, Carracosta, Archen and Archeops.
Clockwise from bottom left: Tirtouga, Carracosta, Archeops and Archen

The bottom line is that, to me anyway, fossil Pokémon are cool.  How, then, could they continue to be used in interesting ways?  I’d like players to have the opportunity to investigate them, and answer some of the questions we still have about them – what happened to each species, for instance?  We know Omastar’s eventual fate, but none of the others.  How are they connected to other modern Pokémon?  What are some of the other prehistoric Pokémon that haven’t left enough material behind for us to resurrect them?  Resurrecting fossil Pokémon is, at the moment, a pretty effortless process – I think a storyline that focused on helping the scientists create the technology in the first place, learning more about the Pokémon themselves in the process, is the way to go for these.  I’d almost be tempted to include a little time travel episode in that – we’ve got Celebi and Dialga, after all; we may as well use them – so you can visit the past (under very specific circumstances, so there’s no need to create a whole prehistoric game world) and collect a little DNA from some ancient Pokémon.  Maybe that’s a little too sci-fi… but then, this is a world where humans shrink fighting creatures into tiny metal spheres and then store them on the internet.

2 thoughts on “On Fossil Pokémon

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