• Geology

Mesas, buttes, and similar landforms are created by deposition and erosion; they are not the remains of ancient trees

Posted on:  2024-05-22

Key takeaway

Available scientific evidence shows that plateaus, mesas, buttes, and pinnacles form through geological processes of deposition and erosion. As a more erosion-resistant top layer of rock slows downward erosion, the sides of these landforms preferentially weather and erode away, leaving flat-topped landforms with sloped sides. There is no evidence that these landforms are the remains of ‘ancient trees’.

Reviewed content


Several types of flat-topped landforms, such as buttes and mesas, are the remains of giant ancient trees.

Source: TikTok, 2024-03-04

Verdict detail


Available scientific evidence from over a century of research unequivocally shows that mesas, buttes, and similar landforms are created through geological processes of deposition and erosion. Geologists have studied the mineralogical compositions of these landforms, and the results show no evidence that they were ever trees. Devils Tower, for example, was formed as magma cooled, solidified, and was later weathered and eroded.

Full Claim

Flat-topped landforms, such as buttes and mesas, are the remains of giant ancient trees. Tree features can be seen in Devils Tower, for example – the large hexagonal columns are fibers of a tree that would have been 19,000 feet tall. Other tree features can be seen in buttes and mesas, such as sloped sides and flat tops that look like tree stumps after trees are cut down.


Several videos have been posted on social media claiming that certain types of landforms – such as buttes and mesas – are the remains of giant ancient trees. A recent example on TikTok, linked here, was posted on 4 March 2024 and gathered over 234K views. Similar TikTok videos, such as the one linked here, gathered over 1.2 million views. Another video, shared on YouTube, made similar claims 7 years ago and has since accumulated 808K views. Given the recurring nature of these claims, and the foundational scientific concepts which they oppose, we will investigate them below using available evidence. 

Landforms, such as buttes and mesas, are created through geological processes of deposition and erosion

The videos linked above claim that certain landforms (e.g., buttes and mesas) are remnants of giant ancient trees. However, as we will detail below, this is incorrect because it is inconsistent with over a century of evidence from geological research. Through this research, geologists determined that certain rock types are more resistant to weathering and erosion than others. When exposed to natural elements – such as wind, rain, and heat – certain rocks are more resistant to decomposition (i.e., weathering) and displacement (i.e., erosion). As a result, some rocks more quickly break down and are transported away by wind, water, and gravity, while others remain in place longer. This process is key to the shaping of many landforms – including plateaus, mesas, buttes, and pinnacles, shown in Figure 1 below. 

Figure 1 – Simplified illustration showing plateau, mesa, butte, and pinnacle landforms. As time progresses, parts of a plateau erode away leaving isolated landforms which slowly narrow from mesas, to buttes, and finally to pinnacles. Modified from source: Hess (2016)[1]

The videos claiming that these landforms are ‘ancient trees’ show various pictures of mesas and buttes with two different rock types – sedimentary (i.e., sediment deposited in layers) and igneous (i.e., solidified magma or lava). We will address both below; however, for both rock types, the claim-making videos provide no scientific evidence that these landforms are ‘ancient trees’. The only reasoning they provide is that there are visual similarities between the two. However, over a century of scientific research shows that these landforms are geological formations resulting from deposition and erosion. The foundation of this work was laid by William Morris Davis, American geologist, in the late 19th century when he established his theory commonly referred to as the ‘cycle of erosion’ or the ‘geomorphic cycle’, which describes the stages of landform development. 

The flat tops and inclined slopes of these landforms like mesas and buttes are well-explained by the process of deposition and erosion. Before being buried and transformed into rock, layers of sediment deposit in horizontal layers stacking on top of each other. This is a principle of geology known as ‘the principle of original horizontality’. Throughout time, the sources of that sediment – and thus the types and properties – also change. This means that certain layers of rock can be more resistant to erosion, and others less so. This turned out to be quite important when studying these flat-topped landforms, as geologists discovered a common theme – the rock on top was more resistant than many of the rock layers below[1]. As shown in Figure 2 below, this causes the top layer to serve as a protective ‘cap’, allowing the sides to erode away faster than the top. As a result, what was once an extensive plateau slowly erodes throughout geologic time, decreasing in width to narrower landforms – from mesa, to butte, to pinnacle[1] (Figure 3). And eventually they are reduced back to sediment once again, restarting the rock cycle

Figure 2 – Illustration showing a generalized cross-section of a mesa, featuring layers of different resistance to weathering and erosion. Note that the eroded side walls of resistant layers have near-vertical slopes, while the easily eroded layers have slopes that are less steep. Modified from source: Hess (2016)[1]
Figure 3 – Simplified illustration showing plateau, mesa, butte, and pinnacle landforms. Over long time periods, parts of a plateau erode away leaving behind separate towers of rock which slowly narrow to a mesa, a butte, a pinnacle, and finally to a pile of rocks on the ground. Source: Late evolutionary stages of residual hills in tablelands

This process is most common with sedimentary rocks, but as noted earlier, it can also occur with igneous rocks (i.e., solidified magma); they can act as ‘caprock’ (as described above) if they lie above rocks that are less erosion-resistant. However, there are also instances where entire buttes form almost entirely from igneous rock, as shown by Devils Tower in Wyoming (Figure 4). 

Figure 4 – Photo of Devils Tower in Wyoming. Note the tall, hexagonal columns on the landform and the rocks (i.e., talus) piled below from erosion and weathering. 

While Devils Tower is often defined as a butte, it was deposited in a different way than the sedimentary landforms we described thus far. This is apparent due to the lack of horizontal stratification in Devils Tower – which was present in the landforms from the previous figures – and by the tall, hexagonal columns that it is composed of. Although these columns are well-studied and explained by geology and physics, videos on social media falsely presented them as evidence that Devils Tower is an ‘ancient tree’. For example, one TikTok video claimed that these columns are ‘fibers’ from a tree that was over 19,000 feet tall. There are several issues with this claim – but most importantly, geologists have already gathered unequivocal evidence for the composition of the rocks in Devils Tower, which show that it is solidified magma (i.e., igneous rock). In a paper titled “Geology of Devils Tower National Monument Wyoming”, published 1957, the landform’s composition is accurately described as a rock called ‘phonolite’ – an igneous rock which forms as magma slowly cools and solidifies. Although it seems strange that this process would form hexagonal columns, the process is a well-understood physical phenomenon and documented in similar landforms around the world (e.g, Giant’s Causeway, Devils Postpile National Monument, Columbia River Basalt Group, Fingal’s Cave, etc.). (Notably, most of these clusters of columnar basalt do not resemble a giant tree trunk). As explained by the European Geoscience Union, these hexagonal columns are the result of cracks that form to relieve tensional strain as the magma cools. While cooling, cracks form along the surface, interconnect, and propagate downwards, eventually forming hexagonal columns in the rock (Figure 5)[2]

Figure 5 – A model of columnar jointing showing hexagonal geometry and propagation direction of cracks that form along a cooling surface. Note that the outer surface cools and cracks, which propagates downward as the inner, deeper rock cools. Source: Lamur et al. (2018)[2]

The mineralogical composition of Devils Tower also provides evidence for its geological origins. As explained above, a phonolite is an igneous rock that forms as magma rises to Earth’s surface where it cools and solidifies. The mineralogical composition (i.e., what the rocks are made of) and the extreme heat of magma do not align with petrification (i.e., the process that creates petrified wood). For a tree to petrify, minerals must fill and/or replace the material of the tree – often coming from dissolved minerals in groundwater. But the geologists who analyzed samples from Devils Tower found no such evidence of this. Furthermore, phonolite does not form through mineral replacement, but instead by crystallization of hot magma[3]. Finally, the mineralogy of phonolite (e.g., anorthoclase, aegirine-augite, albite, and microcline) – found through mineralogical analyses of rocks from Devils Tower – does not match that of petrified wood (e.g., silica and calcite). 

The evidence above is sufficient to explain the geological origins of the hexagonal columns that form Devils Tower. However, in addition to this, scientific studies have shown that trees have an upper-limit to growth, and this limit is much shorter than 19,000 feet – the hypothetical tree height mentioned in one of the TikTok videos. Koch et al. (2004) estimate that the maximum tree height is ~427 feet[4], due to physical limitations of water transport in trees. 

Evidence of mesa and butte landforms on other planets

Another interesting finding is that landforms like buttes and mesas can be found on other planets, which have no existing evidence of life. For example, satellite and rover images of Mars – which has shown no evidence of life – shows evidence of degraded plateaus (e.g., mesas and buttes), as shown in figures 6-8 below.  

Figure 6 – Evidence of various landforms on Mars, including a mesa (M), butte (B), and pinnacle (P). Source: Mandt (2014)[5]
Figure 7 – Photo of the central mesa inside Hebes Chasma on Mars captured by The High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on ESA’s Mars Express. Source: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
Figure 8 – True-color image of a mesa on Mars taken with a High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) onboard ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. The elevation of the mesa’s upper surface is 3 kilometers higher than the surrounding terrain. Source: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)


In conclusion, there is no evidence that landforms such as plateaus, mesas, buttes, and pinnacles were ever ‘ancient trees’. Available scientific evidence shows that these landforms are created through geological processes of deposition and erosion. As a more erosion-resistant top layer of rock slows downward erosion, the sides of the landforms preferentially weather and erode away. This leaves distinct flat-topped landforms with sloped sides that decrease in width as time progresses. Geologists have also analyzed the mineralogical composition of rocks coming from these landforms, which shows a geological origin with no evidence that it is petrified tree material. 


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