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.