Implications of Artifacts and Bones on Ancient Human Butchery Practices

A recently published study is making news the last couple of days. It regards evidence obtained from remains of preserved bones of human scavenging and/or hunting practices.   The site of the dig is a hillside in southern Kenya where, in less than an acre, more than 3700 fossils and more than 2000 artifacts have been recovered in three distinct archaeological bearing layers spanning three vertical meters.   The research paper  “Earliest Archaeological Evidence of Persistent Hominin Carnivory” that details some of these fossils and artifacts was published in PLOS One which is open access  if you want all the details.

The extinct elephant Deinotherum was quite a bit larger than even the largest elephant today. It's bones have been found from Asia to Europe and through the upper half of Africa. This report from Kenya is the first time I've seen their bones associated with evidence of human occupation.

The extinct elephant Deinotherum was quite a bit larger than even the largest elephant today. It’s bones have been found from Asia to Europe and through the upper half of Africa. This report from Kenya is the first time I’ve seen their bones associated with evidence of human occupation.

What first caught my eye when I scanned this article was the mention that Dienotherium bones were found at this location.  I had just written about Dienotherium in a post two weeks ago (See:  NH Notes: A Trunk and Tusk-Challenged Fossil Elephant). This was the extinct elephant with the downward pointing tusks that was larger than any elephant alive today.  The presence of its bones at a site where human activity has been found tells us that our ancestors likely saw these incredible elephants.  And really, I just couldn’t pass up another chance to show one of these amazing creatures.

While this paper doesn’t contain particularly earth-shattering news, especially since this site has been known for some time, I suspect that outside of the paleontology world few people would be aware that fossil locations of such magnitude like this exist.   In fact, there are thousands of sites that contain stone tools and bones but few are as dense or as well-studied as this site.  However, there are several features of this site must be taken into account by the evangelical community in any discussion of human origins  and the timescale of creation and thus this site merits some further exploration:

The dig site where these bones and artifacts have been found over the past decade of research at this site.

The dig site where these bones and artifacts have been found over the past decade of research at this site.  This one small area has yielded more than 3000 bones and 2000 artifacts.

1)  This site (see picture to left) sits on what is today the side of hill but the 10 meters of layers of sediments/rock in which these bones and stone tools were found are horizontally deposited with several meters of sediments above the bone/tool bearing layers. The sediments here suggest this was once the edge of a lake/marshy area.   The authors of this paper suggest that the three primary layers of bones and tools were deposited over several hundred thousand years after which they were then covered with many additional meters of sediments which have turned mostly into rock and then have eroded into the valley that we see today.

This is yet another one of these important archaeological sites where the context of deposition is what makes this such a for young earth creationists to explain. I’m really at a loss as to how, within a young earth context, such a collection of bones and massive number of stone tools could have been produced in an area of no more than an acre in just a few years.   The YEC explanations have never made sense to me.  We are told that we must accept an interpretation of scripture that requires that the builders of the Tower at Babel just 4250 years ago dispersed and ran to southern Kenya.  Along they way they completely forgot how to make anything but the most rudimentary stone tools.  Once in Kenya they butchered animals with those tools.

But there are three layers in which  thousands of fossils and artifacts are present so this butchering must have taken place over some period of time.  Then the site accumulated even more sediment before an apparent changing environment caused the area to dry up and begin to erode exposing the bones for us to find today.  It would seem far easier to interpret the context of the artifacts and bones as creating a picture of a complex and lengthy history of human habitation at this location.  Young earth creationists must reject both an ancient history and a history that included a long period of habitation here because they consider this location as part of post-Flood deposits.

A small antelope leg bone with cut marks, indicative of early human butchery practices with stone tools. The tools for making these cuts where also found in the same area. (Credit: Image courtesy of Baylor University)

A small antelope leg bone with cut marks, indicative of early human butchery practices with stone tools. The tools for making these cuts where also found in the same area. (Credit: Image courtesy of Baylor University)

2)  Looking a bit closer, the large number of artifacts found here strongly suggest the use of this site over a very long period of time.  There are thousands of artifacts found in this one location but  the rock from which the tools were made came from more than 10 miles away and so these tools would have presumably been valuable to the hunters.  They simply would not have left all their tools here but would have taken them to the next hunting scavenging site if possible.  There is much evidence of other large carnivores that chewed on these bones after (yes there is evidence that the animal scavenging was secondary) having been worked on by man and so it could be there there were times the inhabitants had to abandon the site quickly leaving some stone implements behind some of which may have never been recovered.  So, the fact that there are thousands of stone tools at this location mixed throughout more than 10 feet of sediments suggests that this site was inhabited period of time three separate time:  there are three different layers concentrated bones and artifacts each separated by several feet of sediments with very few bones).

Sample artifacts collected at this site in southern Kenya. These are clearly not an advanced form of stone tools that one might find at more modern archaeological sites. Image from: http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/june-2012/article/the-hard-stuff-of-culture-oldowan-archaeology-at-kanjera-south-kenya

Sample artifacts collected at this site in southern Kenya. These are clearly not an advanced form of stone tools that one might find at more modern archaeological sites. Image from: http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/june-2012/article/the-hard-stuff-of-culture-oldowan-archaeology-at-kanjera-south-kenya

There is NO evidence of a settlement here or in the area but only these bones and artifacts.   If the individuals that did this butchering here had any technology beyond these tools it would be evident.   The tools came from rocks many miles away, if they inhabitant had any better technology they would not have carried this rocks all this distance.  And look t the quality of these stone implements (Image to the right). No one would interpret these as sophisticated instruments and yet there are so many of them that it is obvious that this is ALL of the technology that the inhabitants of this area possessed at this time.   All of this fits the interpretation of a wandering group of hunter/gathers which also lends credence to the fact that the collection of remains here would have taken hundreds, if not many thousands, of years to accumulate.

3)  The types of fossil bones found at this site tells us something about the rate of speciation.  I say this because if you have followed any of my recent posts on the topic of creationist’ theories of the origin of species (baraminology) then you know that they believe in super fast evolution of a representative pair into hundreds and thousand of species of a kind (eg. 250 squirrel species today including tree, ground and flying squirrels and marmots are said to have arisen from just two squirrel ancestors on the ark).  If this site represents very early times after a global flood then we should see here a snapshot of the animals during this diversification process.  So what kinds of bones were found?  Well, a few bones come from extinct species but most are from hippos crocodiles, antelope, horses, water buffalo and other bovine/ungulates that are either the same species or just slightly different species than we see today in Africa.  This suggests that the animals that our ancestors were seeing and butchering were very similar to what we are familiar with today.  But remember that many creationists believe that all of these species of each of these groups are of the same “kind” and thus would not all have been on Noah’s ark.  Rather than seeing the process of speciation in process, it appears that all the species seen today were already formed even by this time. But the fossil record suggests that there were thousands of different species of animals that occurred in rocks that creationists say were deposited after the flood. Why then do we not see that the first records of man in these areas are not butchering many exotic extinct species rather than the same species we have today?   This site suggests that man has encountered a very similar fauna that we have today though its history and isn’t supportive of the expectations that are raised by creationists theories of animal diversification after the flood.

That might have been a bit hard to follow so here is a simpler way of putting it:  Based on today’s creationists understanding of biological origins it would be expected that if we were travel back to the time after the animals departed the ark that we would be hard-pressed to identify any animals other than one that looked “elephant like” or “canine-like” or “bear-like” etc….  But the evidence from this site suggests that animals were present that were nearly identical to what we see today.   This is similar to my point about equines in the Bible. The Bible described many species of horses just as we see them today. We don’t see any evidence that they “evolved” from a common ancestor on the Ark.

What isn’t and what is found at a site can tell us about the behavior of the residents who lived there

You might wonder why the investigators believe that this site provides evidence that the people of this area were scavengers in addition to hunters.  The evidence comes from the observation that there are disproportionate number of large crania (heads) at the site.  Since only the crania of large animals are found it seems very likely they were brought from elsewhere to this site.   The presence of crania strongly suggests that only the crania had any resources left to consume as most animals can’t access the crania and will leave that until the very last.  Had humans hunted these large animals they would have brought the whole animal and possibly left the crania at the site of the kill since the ratio of food to weight is lowest for this part of the body.  Therefore it seems likely that the inhabitants found already devoured bodies and recovered the heads and brought them to this location to process them.

Article Source:    Ferraro JV, Plummer TW, Pobiner BL, Oliver JS, Bishop LC, et al. (2013) Earliest Archaeological Evidence of Persistent Hominin Carnivory. PLoS ONE 8(4):e62174. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062174

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