(Human Ash) Diamonds are Forever

Louisa King

In his 1950 seminal lecture The Origins of the Work of Art, Martin Heidegger insists that the earth and the world are in ‘constant strife’1. Heidegger posits that it is the artwork that might be useful in “setting up a world [that may then] set forth the earth”: artworks belong to the earth (in that they are made from earthly things) but are made in the realm of the world (in that they are products of human culture). Thus it is potentially an ‘artwork’ that may act as a conduit and straddle the two paradigms of our planetary bodies to bring resolution to the humanistic perspectives of the contemporary material conditions that are proposed through the concept of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is the name given to the current age where humans are said to be operating on a geologic scale2 , a concept made widely fashionable by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen.


Deep geologic time is the chronological system for determining and expressing the age of the earth. Large spans of time are segmented by events, of both a geologic and biological nature. Eons, the largest units of time, are divided into eras, which are then divided into periods, epochs and ages. This geologic time scale consists of concepts and measurements of time that are so vast and incomprehensible that entities who generally live for less than 100 years may conceive of their registration on the earth within such a scale as inconsequential. The Anthropocene is nomenclature to describe the current geologic epoch where human beings are inline with (and an excessive force within3 ) the systems of the earth and are operating on a geologic scale. The point of emergence of this epoch is contested—it has been posited anywhere between the dawns of Paleolithic agricultural development to the great post-war acceleration of manufacturing in the 20th century.4

Fig 1

The ‘golden spike’ marking the Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) at the base of the Ediacaran Period

The Cambrian Radiation

During the Proterozoic Eon, which lasted from about 2,500 million to 570 million years ago, there was a universal single ocean called the Panthalassic, which surrounded the postulated supercontinent of Pangaea. Only single-celled organisms and bacteria dwelled in the Proterozoic, taking the form of soft-segmented worms, fronds, discs and immobile bags. These primordial sentient life forms were the first and lone animal inhabitants of earth. However, seeing as they had no mineral components, they left no trace documentation of their activity within the stratigraphic record except for their petrified burrows. Up until the dawn of these animals during the Archaean Eon (immediately prior to the Protozeroic), the earth was still transforming from soil and atmospheric instable stratum into a state that could support the growth and development of these initial non-mineral species.

The waters of the Panthalassic remained relatively stable, with low levels of acidity owing to the greenhouse effect that was in action at this time. Then, about 600 million years ago, the terrestrial conglomerate of Gondwana—the southernmost segment of Pangaea and the autochthonous5) craton of the landmass of Arabia, Africa, South America, Antarctica, Australia, and the peninsula of India—underwent a rapid 60-degree rotation across the Earth’s surface. This dramatic turn, the product of continental plate tectonics, resulted in a massive volcanic arc around the rim of Pangaea.  The violent churning movements of this tectonic event resulted in huge amounts of minerals— mainly calcium, phosphate, calcite, aragonite—being released from deep within the earth’s mantle into these newly formed inland seas. This produced a union of the effervescently carbonated ocean and the single-celled organisms that dwelled within, out of which the first true unfolding diversification of the animal kingdom occurs. This event is known as the Cambrian Radiation.

The lithosphere sits above the earth’s mantle and forms the uppermost stratum of the crust. The earth-scale tectonic event of the Cambrian Radiation intersected the intimate scale of the single-celled organism, and produced a moment of convergence that was across scales. This moment in the earth’s history saw the bifurcation of the entire animal kingdom via the confluence of inorganic and organic bodies. As these earthly minerals breached the territories of the bodies of these animals, a synthesis of geologic–animal tissues was created, mainly in the form of shells, spines, eyes and scales. This event signaled the turn from the Proterozoic epoch into the Cambrian. It is events that mark all turns in geologic stratigraphic time. Events mark changes in fossil and geologic records held within differing strata of the lithosphere, and these tectonic events produced, and still produce, the event of our evolutionary becoming. The earth (and its forces) exists prior to the imminence of our own becoming, and therefore sits outside of geologic time; the time when the earth was ‘born’ is prior to our re-birth from its subsequent primordial fabric. However, the event is the apparatus through which we draw in the earth to our bodies:  the material and materiality of our transformations. These events (and the changes immanent within them) mark unions and coalescences of geologic time and the intimate daily schedule of our bodies.

Fig. 2

A human skull covered with plaster from Beisamoun in Hula Valley, pre-pottery Neolithic B period. From the Moshe Stekelis Museum of Prehistory exhibition.

Scales of time / scales of the earth

An intimate time could be understood as nanographic time, playing out in the temporally inward atomic space of bodies. The Precambrian radiation was produced in only a geologic second—20 million years— created the taxonomical difference of all current day species manifesting in anthropoids, brachiopods, coelenterates, echinoderms, mollusc and vertebrates (chordates). Since this event, one-fifth of our composition belongs to the mineral world. Human beings even have gold deposited within their bodies: gold enters our interiors through the food & water supply, producing alluvial deposits deep within us. These processes of admixture, distillation, deposition and sedimentation that occur between rock and animal specimens produce unions that undermine the materiality of our perceived composition, and thus, via the conflation of scales of time, undo the earth-human dialectic.

Crystalline flesh

And what is our ethical responsibility to the mineral world? For Carl Linnaeus, Swedish Enlightenment scientist, rocks were ‘alive’6, inhabiting the world in the same vital way as birds and trees. He developed a system for classifying the mineral kingdom (regnum lapideum) alongside the plant and animal kingdom. In Linnaeus’s figurative form of representation, female earths (terrae) are fertilized by male salts (salia); from this unity of matrimonial intercourse, minerals are produced. There is even the possibility of inter-kingdom unions: rock has the potential to mate with animal species, resulting in crystalline flesh.

The USA company Life Gem manufactures certified high-quality diamonds by subjecting human ashes (carbon) to conditions that recreate the high temperature and pressures which normally only occur at depths of 140–190 kilometers deep in the Earth’s mantle. These machines, the same used to make all synthetic gems, are able to speed up the growth of a diamond from 3.3 billion years down to a week—a rate of about 0.2–0.4 carats per day.

Fig. 3

A raw diamond created from human ashes. via.

When we die, our flesh returns to the earth as we are folded back into the ground. As diamonds, we have the potential to remain in a single atomic state for a billion years—even if we were dropped into the ocean, becoming deposited in the bottom of the seabed and eventually setting into a limestone stratum. We’d then sink and intrude into the lower mantle via continental drift, and enter the subduction zone of a volcano belt situated at the convergent boundaries of tectonics plates. From there, we’d be picked up by a magma flow and spat back out onto the surface of the earth through a volcanic event. Through this, in our diamond state, we would remain perfectly intact. This seems like an agreeable state to end up in. Tim Morton calls this drive a ‘return to the quiescence of the inorganic world’: a complete dive through subjection of our being, through the primary moment of the earth inception, and even beyond—back to the Cryptic era within the Hadean eon (the big bang).

Events and the geomorphic agent


Sunset over Cooper Pedy.

Tectonic events are occurring this very moment, and we, as geomorphic events ourselves, bring about material changes of a similar nature to the Cambrian geomorphic migration: we admix and distil the earth through anthropic activity. The churning up of the earth surface from agricultural practices makes the lithosphere susceptible to winds that carry material up, projecting geology into the atmosphere and making the stratigraphic blues, reds and yellow hues of the sky at sunset through the phenomena of Raleigh Scattering. This re-projection of the substrata of the earth into the sky makes an image through the vector of our anthropic geologic activity via our planetary situation.

Traditionally, a geomorphic agent is described as any medium that carries and deposits geologic material resulting in earth transformations, such as glaciers; groundwater; and wind movements within standing bodies of water (e.g., waves, currents and tidal falls). A key concept of the Anthropocene is the idea of human as geomorphic agent. This concept has the potential to situate us within Geologic time, in which the idea of geologic and human time is dissolved.

Geologic time occurs within both incorporeal and terrestrial bodies. Post-humanists believe that the first human to live for 1,000 years has already been born7. What will it feel like to live for 1,000 years? What will the geomorphology of this life look like? You would witness rivers changing multiple courses; entire sand dune complexes would come and go. Both terrestrial and corporeal bodies could transmorph together, as material entities with a flexible ontology. What might it feel like to translate your material composition and taxonometric classification from one kingdom to another? Might this be possible as human and geologic times converge? In which case what form might an event take? Would events that occur within the territories of our bodies become as significant as earthquakes?

Migrating Bodies

John Rajchman proposes (in the 1995 Lightness edition of ANY Magazine) that we are solely terrestrial beings, stating, “for even when all the parts of our body are in motion, our flesh remains tied to [the earth]”8. Bodies and formations migrate and move atop the mantle of the earth. However, the mantle does not move this way. It anchors to the outer core through deep lithospheric roots to the Achaean sub-conditional mantle—the hot flowing mantle that lies beneath the asthenosphere. The Pilbara Craton of Western Australia is attached to the earth’s mantle. It is the nucleus of the Indo-Australian Plate, but does not move across the surface of the earth like other plates. If you stood still on the terrain of the Pilbara Craton, would your body still be in motion? Our bodies rotate around the sun with the earth, as well as when we move across the surface of the earth. All bodies are in constant movement across visible and invisible boundaries. Some movements are denied through the geopolitical apparatus that restrict these motions. But flesh is rooted to the earth—as Rajchman says: “our incarnation supposes it.”9

I attempt to push the current thesis of the Anthropocene beyond a mere recognition of projects and conversations that deal with the global scale of human-subjected endeavours (within science, technology, nature and geopolitics) towards a realm where our relationship with the geologic can be explored through the corporeality of both our bodies, earth and human. A human-centric earth aesthetic has produced this subjectification of humans within deep geologic time, which manifests through post-humanist projects and the folding of post-capitalist material consumptions into objects of fetishism.

I look to explore a paradox at the heart of attempting to marry a theory based on the human scale (the Anthropocene) with my prerogative to seek alternative macro and non-human perspectives (through narratives and scales of the geologic that loosen this hegemony). My research is situated within (and interrogates) this paradox in order to achieve new scales of interaction—which one might enact to curb the current Gaia hypothesis10. If, within the Anthropocene, we are ‘geologic autochthonous agents’11 capable of geologic acts, then how can we understand these acts and practices as being part of a long lineage of mineral–tissue transformations? And how do we understand it outside the current frame, where the geomorphic agent signifies the homogenisation of the individual into the collective (and thus the death of the ethical responsibility of the individual towards the earth)? If we are all agents, then there is a larger incorporeal ‘telluric force’12 at play, and we can dissolve ourselves from accountability.

This paper is a product of many conversations with Saskia Schut.

  1. via Thomas Cummins []
  2. Zalasiewicz, Jan, Williams, Mark. Are we now living in the Anthropocene? []
  3. Yusoff, Kathryn. Geologic life: prehistory, climate, futures in the Anthropocene Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2013, volume 31, GSA Today []
  4. Turpin, Etienne. The Architecture of the Anthropocene, Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy []
  5. Allaby, Michael (editor) Oxford Dictionary of Geology and Earth Sciences (4 ed. []
  6. Tore Frängsmyr, Geologi och skapelsetro: Föreställningar om jordens historia från Hiärne till Bergman []
  7. Blackford, Russell. From a recording from Radio National: The Body Sphere, ‘Human enhancement’ []
  8. Rajchman, John. Constructions Writing Architecture []
  9. ibid. []
  10. Bronislaw, Szerszynski. A response to Bruno Latour’s lecture ‘Gaia: the new body politic’ []
  11. Hornborg, Alf & Malm, Andreas. The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative, in The Anthropocene Review []
  12. Stoppani, Antonio; who in 1873 rated human activities as “a new telluric force, which in power and universality may be compared with the greater forces of the earth.” []
Louisa King is a landscape architect and researcher.