Exploring the wonders of geology in response to young-Earth claims...

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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Geological death traps and the impossibility of a post-Flood migration from Ararat

Over the past week, Dr. Julie Meachen—a paleontologist with Des Moines University—has been making headlines after obtaining a permit to excavate mammalian fossils from a sinkhole cave in Wyoming. The 85-foot-deep sinkhole likely collapsed more than 100,000 years ago, and has since been collecting the remains of rather unfortunate Pleistocene- and Holocene-aged individuals, who managed to fall through the conspicuous opening at the surface. The researchers intend primarily to recover samples of ancient DNA from the site, which has kept cool since its formation (i.e. a stable, preservative climate) and could provide one of the first North American repositories of ancient DNA from ice-age megafauna. It will be fascinating to learn what may be resolved about these widely debated extinctions, which themselves have made headlines for decades. I wish Dr. Meachen and her team the best as they move forward with this project; repelling 85-feet vertically down a pitch-black chamber of death is by no means an easy task! Hopefully this Indiana Jones-like tale gives you a better appreciation for your neighborhood paleontologist.

While this story is very intriguing by itself, I hope to utilize it as an introduction to a more comprehensive challenge to one young-Earth claim, currently touted by Ken Ham, the Creation Museum, and the upcoming Ark Encounter. According to the young-Earth paradigm, a relatively small population aboard the ark had to repopulate the entire Earth within only several hundred years following the Flood.

Why so quickly?

Well, we know from paleontological evidence that all sorts of mammals, including megafauna like mammoth, mastodon, sloths, giant deer, dire wolves, lions, cheetahs, and many many more, are currently buried within Pleistocene (2.6–0.012 million years ago) and Holocene (11,600 years to present) sediments around the world, including the Americas. Since so-called "Flood geologists" almost universally consider these most recent geological periods to be post-Flood, we must assume that each species migrated from Ararat across the globe in time to have been buried and preserved as fossils. But here's the catch: many of these fossils and sediments are also associated with the most recent ice age. While the last glacial period lasted about 100,000 years and ended 11,600 years ago by conventional geological wisdom, young-Earth geologists speculate that the ice age occurred almost immediately after the flood, lasting as long as ~700 years.

For the sake of discussion, let's grant this already implausible timeline from the young-Earth paradigm. Now, we are left with only ~700 years in which a handful of mammal 'kinds' must have diversified (i.e. evolved) into thousands of species, migrated as far as 16,000 miles (~25,000 km), meanwhile reproducing at rate sufficient to account for millions of individual fossils, which represents but a fraction of the global population during the ice age (I consider only the most previous ice age, but there were actually several dozen!). Does this sound reasonable?

A senseless census: ice-age mammal populations of the 'post-Flood' period

Fortunately for us, we can turn this thought experiment into a testable hypothesis: if modern mammal populations originated from a few kinds aboard Noah's ark, then we should expect regional populations to have been sparse in the first millennium after the flood, due to limitations on reproduction rate. For example, mammoths and mastodons reproduce at around 20–30 years of age, only after a relatively long gestational period. Even under the best-case (but still impossible) scenario of doubling the population every 20 years, it would take 400 years to produce 1 million individuals from a single pair of proboscideans. Of course, not all of these would be mammoth, but would include elephants, mastodons, and other species within this 'kind'.

Geological death traps, like the sinkhole cave in Wyoming, tend to work like a semi-biased population census. Only the most desperate or distracted individuals fell into the trap, but all of them had to be living or migrating in the vicinity of the cave. In other words, the pile of fossils at the bottom of this single cave—reportedly as high as 30-feet!—constitutes but a small fraction of the ice-age population living in the region that would become our great state of Wyoming. If thousands of individuals now rest in the bone graveyard, the regional mammalian population could not have been less than hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

Example of bones amassed in the Berelekh mammoth graveyard, northern Siberia.
Other mass graveyards exist around the globe, such as the Berelekh mammoth graveyard in Siberia. Pitulko et al. (2014; 2011) report that most radiocarbon dates from mammoth bones and associated biological material fall between ~14,000–11,500 years ago—the latest interval of the last ice age, during which most mammoth went extinct around the globe. It is likely that humans played some role in the rapid accumulation of mammoths, given their common association with archaeological sites (e.g. Ugan and Byers, 2008, or see McNeil et al., 2005 for a North American study). In any case, these mass graves are found throughout Eurasia—e.g., Achchagyi–Allaikha in northeast Asia, Lugovskoe in western Siberia, Sevsk in western Russia, and Gary in the Ural mountains, among others, according to Pitulko et al., (2011)—and have been used to estimate ice-age mammoth populations of up to 5 million in Eurasia alone. Conservative estimates might be lower, but we know the actual number is very high, and estimates grow each decade with new fossil discoveries.

Young-Earth geologists would obviously challenge the accuracy of these radiocarbon dates and consider them 'apparently old', so let's consider how our conventional geological timeline might translate into theirs. Radiocarbon ages of ~12,000–18,000 years are everywhere associated with the last stage of the ice age and the extinction of most megafauna. These dates are far too old (or too inflated) to be less than ~3,000 years, because we have abundant corroboratory evidence from archeology and human history to confirm the accuracy of radiocarbon dates during this interval, even to the satisfaction of young-Earth geologists. According to most 'Flood geologists', however, the post-Flood ice age ended no less than ~3,700 years ago. Therefore, we have a small window (~3–4,000 years ago) into which these mass accumulations of mammoth and other ice-age mammals must fall, from the perspective of a 'Creation scientist'. Already, we see that the populations of ice-age mammals, especially mammoth, were far too large to be accounted for within a young-Earth paradigm.

Around the globe: North American death trap, numero uno!

If you follow the Naturalis Historia blog, you might remember reading about Sima de los Huesos, a Spanish cave full of hominid remains, or the Kirkdale Cave Hyena Den. These two repositories are relatively small in terms of the unfortunate population sampled, but they present similarly unrealistic constraints on the young-Earth timeline and have long puzzled creationists. The widespread occurrence of such traps documents the diversity and size of animal populations that must have appeared shortly after the Flood and made the move from Ararat, exacerbating the historical absurdity of biblical literalism. To strengthen this case, I want to consider perhaps the most popular site in North America, which now traps only tourists. In 1828, a peculiar ranch was granted by the governor outside a budding Mexican town called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula. Unbeknownst to the ranchers of the day, those smelly and unsightly, bubbling pools of natural asphalt that tainted the landscape had been the world's greatest sarcophaguses for thousands of years—mass mausoleums of a former age. Today, we can experience that history through the Page Museum, which houses the collections of the La Brea Tar Pits in downtown West Los Angeles.

Outdoor exhibit at the La Brea Tar Pits. Photo credit.
The La Brea 'Tar Pits', which are formed by asphalt seeps (tar is manmade) from the petroleum-rich Monterey Formation, have been swallowing alive everything from pollen to giant predators for at least 50,000 years. To date, more than 1 million bones from over 230 vertebrate species have been recovered—a testament to the rich faunal diversity and abundance of southern California during the late Pleistocene. Of the vertebrate specimens, gentle giants like mastodon and ground sloth are indeed present, but the collection overwhelmingly consists of ice-age predators like the dire wolf and saber-toothed cats. For every grazing beast that could not escape the gooey grave, about nine predators and scavengers died trying to recover the free meal. Next time you order a hamburger at the drive-thru, just think, "The effort could be worse. At least I'm burning fuel and not breathing it..!"

Dire wolf skulls on display at the Page Museum.
Paleontologists have now recovered the remains of more than 4,000 dire wolves and 2,000 saber-toothed cats from the pits, which provides an impressive census of local populations. Radiocarbon dates suggest at least two episodes of relatively abundant accumulation, around 40–50,000 years ago and ~26,000 years ago. So let's consider the implication of these tar pits for the 'Flood geologist'. If more than 4,000 wolves, to our knowledge, died trying to feast at a small set of tar pits in southern California, how many wolves total must have living in western North America during the last ice age? It is difficult enough to explain how a population of even 4,000 dire wolves could have appeared within 700 years after the Flood, more than 10,000 miles from Ararat, but young-Earth creationists must account for millions of individuals across the entire continent (along with every other species of the 'dog kind' so calmly referenced by Ken Ham). For example, dire wolf fossils have even been recovered near Las Vegas in Tule Springs National Monument, another large repository of Columbian mammoth. If this scenario makes little sense for long-distance runners that breed quickly, how can we possibly explain the distribution and size of giant sloth populations in the Americas? It takes little analysis to see why the La Brea Tar Pits are a clear testament against the upcoming 'Ark Park' in Kentucky.

Be fruitful and multiply

The geological death traps discussed here are but a small sample of those found throughout the globe, which provide gruesome tales of an ancient age. If young-Earth creationists, particularly via the Ark Encounter, continue to make the preposterous claim that a small collection of animal 'kinds' evolved rapidly and distributed themselves across the continents, then we cannot be expected to take their worldview seriously. So long as Ken Ham and others conflate their efforts with evangelism, moreover, they will drag down the Christian church with their sea-unworthy ship. History is rife with warnings against braiding the gospel with bad science and poor politics, which Ham has ignored while taking the helm of a vessel that he deems unsinkable. Still, we are exhorted to pray on Earth as in Heaven, let Your will be done and commissioned with the task of bearing good fruit in a world of nuts. So this is my effort for the day. If you find this raspberry to be sweet, please don't hesitate to share, and pray that so many will no longer disregard God's rich satisfaction of our scientific curiosity.


  1. Thanks for this excellent analysis!

  2. A post-flood ice age is positively unbiblical. God's promise at Genesis 8 verse 22. But try telling that to a YEC Christian 'flood geologist'.

    1. Yes, I agree. Most of their reading the Bible, especially in modern forms of YEC, involve grasping at straws to explain their scientific predicaments. This is precisely what they accuse us of doing, so they remain stalwart on their interpretation to preserve the inadequate scientific explanations.

  3. I have in fact flagged the blog here:
    http://worldviewwarriors.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/young-earth-creation-tower-of-babel.html (YEC blog article)
    https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=4582953863643137208&postID=5827958171791938693 (comments underneath)

  4. Helpful analysis, Jon! Thank you. I find especially interesting the number of fossils and how that relates to the plausibility of the typical YEC account of things. I recall that Philip Gosse, in his Omphalos book, makes the same argument, and I found it equally impressive when I read it there. I appreciate your ability to bring out these kinds of details that help non-specialists access the evidence by which we can make a more informed judgment in these matters.

  5. Great article, but I feel your estimate of a 700-year "Ice Age" is being far too generous to the creationists and their Ice Week. Andrew Snelling and Answers in Genesis gave the most detailed timeline for the creationist Ice Week that I've seen, and I don't know of any YECs who disputed it:

    Snelling/AIG's Graphic Ice Age Timeline & shoreline map [PDF file]

    That map and timeline really is a dog's breakfast, introducing all kinds of problems. The Ice Week is indicated by a sort of blurry bar that allows them wiggle room to evade falsification, but I see their creationist "Ice Week" as lasting 105-120 years. Here is how I read Snelling's graphic:

    Noah's Flood occurs during the [Real World] Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, long after the completion of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

    A generation is about 30 years, says Snelling.

    Mastodons evolving ~2 generations after the Flood, so that would be 2350 – 60 = 2290 BC.

    Babel is three generations after Flood, ~2250 BC.

    First tools and human fossils at the same time as Babel, ~2250 BC.

    Start of Ice Age is one generation after Babel, which would be ~2220 BC, or 70 years after Mastodons first evolved.

    Wooly Mammoths evolving at the start of the Ice Week, so that would be ~2220 BC, or 70 years after Mastodons evolve.

    (Stop and think about that for a minute. Mastodons evolved 70 years before the start of the one and only Ice Week and the evolution of Mammoths. Real world 10+ million years.)

    Humans enter Australia about 2 2/3 generations after Babel, so that would be 2250 – 80 = ~2170 BC. [Conventionally, extinction of Australian megafauna is reliably dated to 46,000 BC. Thus the time span between the evolution of Mastodons, 10+ million years ago, and humans entering Australia, 48,000 years ago, an interval of some 9,950,000 years, is compressed into 50 years.]

    End of Ice Age is 4 ½ or 5 generations after Babel, which would be ~2115-2100 BC.

    [Real world: End of Ice Week would be after the end of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, after Sixth Dynasty, in the First Intermediate Period. China: Xia Dynasty started about 2100 or 2070 BC.]

    Total duration of Ice Age: 105-120 years.

    This means that the time from the first evolution of Mammoths, their spreading over the continents and going extinct, is 120 years. If the population doubled every 20 years (super-optimistic), the worldwide population of mammoths would be 2^7= 128 Mammoths.

    Generation right before Abraham lasts 40 years, so Abraham’s birth is ~2030 BC (Snelling says ~2000 BC).

    1. Also look at Snelling's map of "Current" and Ice Age shorelines on the map-- very inaccurate, even for current shorelines. Indonesian islands like Bali and Lombok are messed up. In the real world, even during the Ice Age when sea levels were lower, there would still be no way for large animals to cross the Lombok Strait and Timor Trough.

    2. Wow, thank you for the very detailed analysis and for the link! I've honestly not seen this graphic, which is very helpful (because the timeline is so absurdly compressed). You're right, I allowed for the 'best-case scenario' from YEC literature, specifically Michael Oard. I would trust Oard to model and reconstruct a hypothetical "Ice Week" over Snelling, but if no real-world data fit with Oard's timeline, then we can automatically discount Snelling's graphic as well.

      You're right about the shorelines (and I would add glacial limits), though I'm not very familiar with Australasian reconstructions, so thank you for catching the errors around Bali/Lombok. Snelling's shoreline and glacial boundaries must be rather arbitrary, because he has no real means by which to reconstruct sea level on a meaningful time scale. I did notice, however, that he uses the Last-Glacial Maximum boundary in Eurasia to map out the Scandinavian Ice Sheet. What he has hidden, therefore, are the massive glacial deposits in central and southern Siberia from earlier, Middle Pleistocene glacial maxima. During the last glacial period, the ice sheet grew southwest toward Europe, but retreated in northern Siberia due to lack of precipitation. Previous ice sheets had very different spatial distributions, because of varying climate boundaries between glacial cycles (something that makes absolutely no sense in any YEC timeline). Of all the problems oversimplified by Flood geologists, the ice ages rank high in terms of abuse, but receive very little attention from critics.

  6. Hey, are you going to blog on AIG's take on Kulindadromeus, the feathered neornithischian?


    They ain't no feathers! They're bristles. Nothing to see here. Move along.

    Compare the pictures of the scales with integument in that fossil to what creationists used to say:

    Pravda, 2008: A true transitional form would be something like a fish having part fins…part feet, or a bird having part scales…part feathers, partially one function, partially another with neither being complete or functional. Even the top experts of evolution theory have admitted that there are no indisputable transitional forms in the fossil record to support evolution across biological groups or kinds, although this news is rarely made public in the media or in textbooks. [Evolution Theory Lacks True Transitional Forms. Pravda, 20.10.2008, ]

    See? A true transitional fossil has to be non-functional, that is, lethal and dead. If it was ever alive, it's not transitional!

    T. T. Martin, 1923: If birds evolved from reptiles, how did they ever get feathers? How could the scales of reptiles ever become feathers? No Evolutionist claims that the scales changed to feathers suddenly, in one generation; for them to have evolved gradually, through many generations, would mean inheriting acquired characteristics and that has been given up by the leading Evolutionists. [T. T. Martin. Hell and the High Schools (1923). Chapter IV.]

    Henry Morris, 1981: The fact is there are no intermediate forms that have been found, and this is, of course, a precise prediction of the creation model. Maybe the evolution model can explain why there are no intermediate forms, but it’d be a lot better proof of evolution if we could find an intermediate series – if we could find, for example, a whole series of organisms showing how the invertebrate gradually evolved into the vertebrate, or the fish into the amphibian. If we could find a series of forms showing how they gradually changed, the feet and legs of the amphibian, or the fins of the fish gradually changed into the feet and legs of the amphibian, and the scales of the reptile gradually became, becoming the feathers of the bird. If we could find these intermediate structures somewhere, or a series of them, then of course creationists would have a hard time accepting anything but evolution as the explanation for that.

    Well, we don’t find those… But the fact is you don’t see it anywhere, and science is supposed to be what you can see. …We don’t have to explain why the gaps are there, the creation model predicts the gaps, and sure enough, once again, the creation model fits the facts exactly as they’re found… Creation model predicts the gaps in the fossil record, and that’s exactly what we find.
    -- [Debate of Henry Morris vs. Ken Miller. 1981]

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