When I first introduced Paleontologist John Huntley to the concepts of liminality, its recent applications to anthropology, epistemology, social sciences, religion and spirituality, international studies and depth psychology, I asked how this would relate to his field, analysis of the archaic geologic record. Where would the phenomenon of grand pause, regrouping, and the resurgence of new life be on conspicuous display? Without batting an eye he answered, “In the Ediacaran Period, there’s your interval.” That, of course, led to a much longer conversation.
As a professor in the Geology department of the University of Missouri, John’s academic focus is in the fossil record of biotic interactions, stratigraphic paleobiology, conservation paleobiology, and the evolution of morphological disparity. That means he goes back millions of year in the strata of the fossil record and identifies the forms of life and everything that contributed to their beginnings or endings. That’s what led him to talk about the Ediacaran Period. You see, it is that Ediacaran interval (the final period of the Proterozoic era), that preceded what is called the Cambrian Explosion (the first period of the Phanerozoic era) which contains the appearance and evolutionary diversification of most of the animal phyla in a geologically rapid event. In other words, life forms as we know them exploded into being in the Cambrian period and forward. So what set the stage for that?
What set the stage was a quiet Ediacaran interval of millions of years in which a whole series of biotic and abiotic events, a set of feedbacks, a series of switches that all came into play in such a way that they created a pyramid of everything necessary for the big boom of the Cambrian period. This extensively studied liminal interval reveals the mystery of life preparing for itself. As John recognized, it’s the “in-between” things during a huge process makes possible what shall become. Because we are dealing with unimaginably long periods of time that are calculated in the millions of years it is hard to see, to conceptualize. But the stratigraphy of the fossil record freezes that story in time.
Everything that developed during the grand interval of the Ediacaran Period set the stage for life to explode in the Cambrian period and beyond. That, combined with new habitats related to supercontinent breakup, also set the stage for us two-legged big-brained creatures.
If you are looking for answers in life, look in the margins, the intervals, at the edges and boundaries. They often yield not only answers about how things have come to be, but clues as to what may come next.
For those who would like to read the hard research of John and his scholarly team you are invited to take a stroll through The Latest Ediacaran Wormworld Fauna: Setting the Ecological Stage for the Cambrian Explosion.