Tony the Tiger asks:

You like old stuff, right? What are your thoughts on fossil pokemon?

In general archaeologists take pains to point out that we do not study fossils (it’s a surprisingly common mistake).  Not all “old stuff” is similarly old (unless you listen to certain ill-advised religious sects); I deal in the hundreds/thousands of years range, not millions/tens of millions.  Fossils are about as much my professional area of expertise as the moons of Jupiter are an airline pilot’s.

…as it happens, though, I am independently a layman dinosaur nerd with a basic knowledge of evolutionary biology, and I was a sufficiently weird kid that, when I started school, I wanted to be not a fireman or an astronaut but a palaeontologist.  So LET’S TALK FOSSILS.

I actually did write an article on this ages ago, which you can find here, and although it predates generation VI (and its two fossil Pokémon, Tyrunt and Amaura) a lot of the basic thought in there still applies.  Fossil Pokémon, to my mind, serve three different purposes in the games’ themes and structure.  First, they’re part of the Pokémon games’ broad project of representing and celebrating the variety of life on earth.  You don’t need fossil Pokémon in order to have designs based on extinct animals (see e.g. Tropius), but Game Freak seems to prefer it, and it allows Pokémon to talk about extinction (something that’s been on my mind lately) and portray the effects of a changing world on the Pokémon that inhabit it.  Extinction is as much a part of life’s drama as everything else that inspires Pokémon; and historically, realising that extinction is even possible was an important step towards the discovery of evolution, because it showed that life and nature are subject to change.  Second, fossil Pokémon are “hidden” Pokémon that are obtained through unusual means, changing up the gameplay a little (in varying degrees, ranging from obtaining Tyrunt or Amaura pretty much automatically in an early chapter of X and Y, up to mining for fossils of Cranidos or Shieldon in the underground minigame of Diamond and Pearl).  Third, the resurrection process is a demonstration of the miraculous nature of technology in the Pokémon world.  In my opinion (as I suggested in that old article) the use of Old Amber to revive Aerodactyl brings to mind a certain other piece of 90s fiction about the resurrection of prehistoric creatures from DNA frozen in amber.  Consciously or not, the straightforward and uniformly positive nature of player characters’ interactions with this technology presents a striking contrast to the “hubris of science” narrative associated with basically the same technology in the Jurassic Park series, in a way that I think says something important about Pokémon’s general worldview.

The big question a lot of people have about fossil Pokémon is what it means that all of them are Rock-types, and personally my answer is “not much.”  Originally I think there was a sort of naïve feeling on the designers’ part that “of course they’re Rock-types; we revive them from fossils, which are basically rocks.”  At the time no one really thought through the implications of that idea or the questions that it raises, namely “does something about the process of fossilisation and resurrection alter Pokémon and turn them into Rock-types?” or alternatively “were all ancient Pokémon Rock-types, and is Rock the oldest type?” – and subsequently, perhaps uniquely to me, “does that mean Pokémon originally evolved from rocks?  Is that why evolution stones are a thing?  Is that why all Pokémon share unusual physical properties like their reactions to Pokéballs and PC storage?”  I don’t believe the first hypothesis is consistent with the way fossil Pokémon are generally portrayed in the games or anime; I think we’re supposed to imagine that they are resurrected in a similar state to how they originally lived (there is actually a time travel episode where the characters see living Carracosta transported from their natural time, and they don’t seem to be noticeably different from the resurrected Carracosta we know).  I don’t think we have to accept that all prehistoric Pokémon were Rock-types either, though.  My suggestion has always been that Pokémon of all types existed in the distant past, but we are only able to resurrect the ones that survive as fossils; real animals (and presumably most Pokémon) have to die and be buried under fairly specific conditions in order to fossilise, but Rock-types don’t, because their bodies are already stone.  Besides that, there are other Pokémon that give us reason to think that type is probably not related to evolutionary history (Eevee proves, for instance, that you can have a Fire-type which is more closely related to an Ice-type than to other Fire-types).

But there is a caveat to that.  After I first started trying to decipher all sorts of nonsense like this about Pokémon, generation VI happened, and one of the Pokémon of generation VI is Carbink.  Now, Carbink isn’t a “fossil Pokémon” in the way we normally use the term, but the Pokédex does claim that many individual Carbink are hundreds of millions of years old.  That would mean there are individual Carbink alive today who were already unimaginably ancient when most of the other known fossil Pokémon roamed the earth (of the prehistoric Pokémon that are actually given dates by the Pokédex, almost all are said to have lived about 100 million years ago, along with Relicanth; the exceptions are Kabuto and Genesect, at 300 million years old).  And if I were asked to pick, out of all the Pokémon that exist, which one seems most like it could be the ancestor of all the rest, it’d be Carbink, not Mew, who topped my list.  Mew is an incredibly sophisticated organism with a grab-bag of miraculous powers that seem like the result of a very complex evolutionary history.  Carbink is a rock.  It apparently forms spontaneously from diamond ore under certain extreme physical conditions (meaning it doesn’t need to have evolved from anything else), and barely qualifies as organic.  It seems like a decent candidate for occupying the simplest extreme of a spectrum of biological complexity – which is where we should expect life to begin.  I still don’t think we need to believe that all prehistoric Pokémon were Rock-types or that Pokémon evolved from rocks, and I think it’s a good bet that more diversity existed in the time of Pokémon like Cranidos and Tirtouga.  Carbink is certainly one of the oldest known Pokémon, though; so to me it’s not an unthinkable stretch that Carbink could be what all Pokémon were like for a few hundred million years.

3 thoughts on “Tony the Tiger asks:

  1. Actually the “religious sect” view isn’t ill advised; there’s a lot of well educated proponents of it. But I do think it’s a debate for another place, not a Pokémon blog, so not going any further.

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