Geological Context V: Human Fossil Footprints Found Below Ice Age Deposits

A story is breaking today of a significant fossil find that was made almost a year ago but kept under wraps until the significance of the find could be evaluated.   What has now been reveled is that over 100 footprints were found in newly uncovered rocks along a shoreline of England.  Careful analysis of these footprints has led the scientists to conclude that they were the result of an adult male along with four small females or children that walked through a muddy lake or wetland long ago.

Human footprints in stone are observed during low-tide after a storm has removed the sand.  Image credit:

Human footprints in stone are observed during low-tide after a storm has removed the sand. Image credit: Martin Bates

The geological context of these footprints is quite stunning.  Along the shore at Happisburgh England there is a 40 to 100 foot high cliff wall that has been rapidly eroding for many years.  At the base of the cliffs is a layer of dark mudstone (rock formed from clay material).   A recent storm removed sediments revealing a new portion of this rock layer and the footprints contained in them.   Someone recognized that these footprint like impressions could be important and so a group of scientists were called to examine them more closely. They took high-res images of this layer of rock and then as quickly as they appeared they were eroded away by further storms.   But the images and other measurements revealed compelling evidence that people walked across a muddy surface long ago leaving their footprints behind.

There is a YouTube video describing the site and explaining some of the findings so far.

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Cliffs overlooking the North Sea at Happisburgh England. Massive erosion has been eating back these hills causing homes to fall into the sea. The black layer at the base in the rock layer that the footprints were found.

Footprints in stone are able to tell us something about past life.  For example, I have reported on another case of footprints and what they can tell us about behavior of an extinct elephant (Preservation of Behavior: Fossilized Elephant Footprints from Saudi Arabia).  But what can we learn from these footprints?

“Is Creation a Viable Model of Origins in Today’s Modern, Scientific Era?”

That was the central question posed at the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate.  In that debate Ken Ham admitted there was no  evidence that would could make him examine his own convictions.  So these footprints will not cause him to lose any sleep.   But they probably should give him nightmares for they directly contradict the model of origins that he espouses.

Ham has conveniently defined all such evidence as being under the purview of historical sciences and therefore subject to strong worldview bias and not reliable.  Of course he is right that none of us were there to witness the footprints actual origins.  We can’t go back and see them formed or recreate their formation in that exact rock as a “test” of their authenticity.  Does this mean though that we can simply ignore the footprints and go on our merry way? No, that would be akin to simply putting our head in the sand or covering our eyes and saying we don’t see them at all.   Fortunately, we can test both the human origin of the footprints and the age of these footprints.  We do so via observations made in the present, inference and prediction.

Picture of the rock with footprints with the identified human prints identified.

Picture of the rock with footprints with the human prints identified.

The presence of impression in this rock are facts. Ok, sure you could try to argue that even those facts are subject to interpretation and bias.  The pictures could be fake and all the people who saw them could be lying about having seen them.  The impressions could also have been misinterpreted as being human footprints.  Since we can’t know absolutely (God didn’t write specifically tell us about these footprints anywhere in the Bible) that they are human footprints, Ham would seem to have his escape from this problematic data and thus be able to enjoy a peaceful sleep.  So this is just untrustworthy historical science and we can push these footprints out of our minds and continue to say that all the evidence supports a young earth and the “biblical” creation model.

But is this reasonable?  Not at all.  That these are footprints can be ascertained by testing.  Not by going back in time but by comparison with hundreds of studies that have been done on impressions and preservation in mud and comparison with hundreds of other footprints of humans and other organisms in other rocks.  All of those comparisons point, beyond reasonable doubt, to these being authentic human footprints. The research paper associated with this story has been released and available for anyone to read (Hominin Footprints from Early Pleistocene Deposits at Happisburgh, UK, in PlosOne).  This paper includes details about how they assessed the footprints and determined the origin and age of the persons who made them.

Map of Britain long ago during low ocean level. The former location of the River Thames. Currently it  discharges after going by London but in the past it went 60 miles to the North discharging in the area near this fossil site.

Map of Britain long ago during low ocean level. The former location of the River Thames. Currently it discharges after going by London but in the past it went 60 miles to the North discharging in the area near this fossil site.

So let us say we have established beyond reasonable doubt that these are footprints. Now what?  Next we look at where they are found.  They are in rocks that sit below 40 to 100 feet of layered sediments.  Scientists in England had long ago determined that these deposits represent the ancient alluvial deposits of were the River Thames used to flow out in to the North Sea in the past.  Today the River Thames flows much further south but there is an ancient river channel that represents its position prior to the ice sheets changing the landscape and pushing the river to its more southern discharge site.   Again, there are many pieces of evidence that have been collected over time that pointed to this interpretation of the history of the River Thames long before these footprints were found. In other words, finding the footprints did not necessitate the development of ideas about ice ages and former river valleys to explain their origins.

Ice age animals were deposited after the footprints were made

This is another conclusion that I think that historical science can quite confidently make.  These same eroding cliffs have long been a popular site for collecting fossils of ice age animals such as mammoth bones and teeth and plant remains. Included among the objects found in these sediments have been stone tools indicative of ancient man’s presence in the UK long ago.   All of these fossils and relics were obtained from the sediments ABOVE the footprints.  Young earth creationists claim that historical science is subject to interpretation because of presuppositional bias.  Yes, that could be true but do you think that the sediments and fossils in them above the rock layers with the footprints could be deposited earlier than the footprints?  Absolutely not. Clearly we can have a high degree of confidence based on observations of present sedimentary processes that the layers above the footprints were deposited AFTER the footprints has been made.

The challenge to the creation model posed by the footprints

If you haven’t recognized the glaring problem here it is:  Ham’s creation model has man dispersing from the Tower of Babel several hundred years after Noah’s Flood.  By that time the Biblical ice age (the one that Ken Ham believes must have happened because he DOES believe the historical scientific evidence that there were giant ice caps over North America and Europe even though he was not there to see it) was well underway.  Yet, these footprints are as close as you can get to proving that people were hanging out in Britain prior before a massive ice sheet descended on this area (see footnote about actual timing of the footprints).  At this time the River Thames was flowing north but these footprints were made very early in the life of that River at this location. After the footprints were made in some marsh or wetland, the river covered them with sediments.  During those years of deposition above the footprints, mammoths died and teeth, tusks and bones came to be trapped in the sediments that covered this entire part of England. To top it off, massive ice sheets moved in and scraped of much of the higher ground, reshaping the land and forcing the River Thames 60 miles south to its present position.

cliff_erosion_happisburgh

The footprints were found int he layer at water level in the picture. At one time this entire area including the footprints would have been covered by land as high as the top of these cliffs if not even higher.

Ken Ham might counter, how do you know the River Thames was there and then got pushed south. Where you there?  Well, again, there are so many pieces of data that all point to that history. Times arrow leaves powerful evidence of past events just like looking at the damage a bullet does can be used to determine the trajectory of that bullet without ever having to pull the trigger again.  Regardless, even if the story of the River Thames were not completely known, the enormous amount of sediment piled up on these footprints are  clearly river and glacial in origin.  Obviously even Ken Ham is not foolish enough to claim that these footprints happened during the Flood or before the Flood  given they sit above thousands of feet of sediments he believes were deposited by a global flood.  So when were they made?

If Ham’s task doesn’t seem difficult enough lets add on an additional observation/fact that his model must explain:  The current land surface above this fossil site has been occupied for thousands of years.  Archaeologists have found evidence that modern man has been in this part of England for more than 6000 years.  We have little reason to believe that the current topography (hills and valleys) of this part of England looked the same way it does today for at least the last 10,000 years.  Stonehenge itself is thought to be about 5000 years old.   Young earth creationists such as Ken Ham would reject these age estimates of course saying that no human occupation site could be more than 4500 years old.  For now let us assume that they are right and the settlements in England are younger than typically understood.  Still Stonehenge has got to be very old, let us say just 4000 years. This would necessitate that the current landscape of England has n0t changed in any significant way in the past 4000 years.

So where in the world did this 100 foot high and hundreds of square miles in area that cover these footprints come from?   That is a question that should keep Ken Ham up at night but I am sure it won’t bother him a bit.  I expect that anyone that isn’t as confident in their beliefs as he is will find these footprints very perplexing indeed.

The creationists timeline constantly finds itself at odds with observational data.   An old earth model can easily accommodate a new fossil find like this which is a hallmark of a well supported theory. The young earth model of origins must appeal to ad hoc hypotheses or claims of bias in interpretation to avoid the rather simple and obvious interpretation of the observations of fossils such as these footprints.

Addendum I: Other human footprints -The Paluxy Man Tracks

For a long time young earth creationists (YECs) have used supposed footprints of man and dinosaur from the Paluxy River in Texas to support the contention that man and dinosaurs lived together.  Most YECs now recognize that the supposed human footprints found there were either not human or were hoaxes.   But the irony was that YECs would consider this as evidence in support of their view at all. Those fossils were found in rock that in context would have to have been formed well before man could have possible have gotten there after Noah’s flood so these footprints were out of place in the creationists model to begin with.

Addendum II:  The age of the fossil footprints in England

I have simplified the story with respect to the timeline of the footprints to make my point but the footprints are thought to be 850,000 years old and made by something other than modern man.  They are thought to have been made before an ice age but not the more recent one that was raging 20,000 years ago but several ice ages before. So the River Thames was in this area for a long time building up these sediments on top of this area and it was actually moved south long ago before the most recent ice age.

 Addendum III:  Why stone tools?

This is just a stray thought but it has always struck me that that the oldest human sites over African and Europe always have stone tools to be replaced by people with better technology.   Ken Ham and friends talk about people leaving from the Tower of Babel and someone losing their ability to make anything as they migrated across the Earth as fast as they could.  Sudden memory loss never sounded at all convincing to me and then it hit me today that why should these people go to England and have nothing by sharp rocks to kill an eat and yet the people that went to Egypt were able to create an amazing empire immediately after the Flood? Of course what Ken Ham does’t want to deal with is the fact that there actually are stone tools under the layers of sediments of Egypt but those are as impossible to fit into the timeline as are the footprints we have hear.  The YEC argument for stone age man is a total ad-hoc theory composed for the sole purpose of explaining away the obvious facts that at one time people had little technology.

Comments

  1. UK coastal storms and surges have their uses! But we are seeing about one every two days in the UK just now …

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  2. Unwarranted conclusion on your part that the first humans which arrived in the UK had to arrive only after the Babel incident.

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    • Not sure you understood that I was speaking within the context of Ken Ham’s creation view. Or maybe you are referring to a young earth model but are saying that people could have migrated there straight from the Ark without going through Babel. Most YECs take Genesis literally that all people of the earth came to Babel and so they assume that people didn’t disperse across of the Earth until after that time. I don’t think that is even a good strictly literal reading but that is what Ham has said quite consistently. I suppose YECs could argue that one of Noah’s sons walked up to the British isles immediately after departing the ark, make the footprints and then when to Babel or died there and never made it to Babel. So my conclusion is not absolutely necessary but reflects the typical YEC thinking. However even a view of the footprints being made immediately after a global flood is completely at odds with this particular fossil site. Joel

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      • The Bible does not say that everyone went to Babel. Genesis 11:2 states: “As people moved eastward,a they found a plain in Shinarb and settled there.” It does not say, “all peoples” moved eastward. So, I don’t get your assertion that a literal reading is “that all people of the earth came to Babel.” A true literal reading enables one to conclude that people went east, but that others could have gone west or south or north.

        However, there is so much scientific evidence for a young earth, that this footprint issue is insignificant.

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        • Ah, yes. I quite agree that the Bible does not require that all people came to Babel but I didn’t say that that is what I thought happened. I simply was saying that the Ken Ham and most other creations scientist read the scriptures with a form of literal hermaneutic that to them does require that all people did congregate at Babel. So my point was that Ham should find these footprints incomprehensible. But, I would agree with you that his reading of Scripture is wrong here. Still, even had people moved in all directions after a global flood that would only afford about a 200 to 400 year difference in time for people to have made these footprints. If you believe that there is so much evidence for young earth then you are like Ham and there is no evidence that could even give you pause to reflect otherwise. However, to think that these footprints aren’t at least difficult to explain would take some incredible mental gymnastics.

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          • I consider the wealth of evidence against the geologic column — such as the creation of the Mt. St. Helen’s canyon within a span of 3 hours and polystrat tree fossils — and the discovery of dinosaur tissues and wood within coal and the goal-oriented presumptions and repeated errancy of radioisotope dating, for examples, and indeed the re-affirmances of the clear words of Genesis 1 within the New Testament, to be far more compelling than to speculate as to when some footprint trace fossils were laid. The old earth advocates have so much more to explain.

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  3. Virginia Peterson says:

    In case you haven’t noticed yet, here is AiG’s take on the footprints. I find it breathtaking how easily Snelling dismisses all relevant dating methods.
    http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2014/02/18/early-england-footprints

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    • Wow, Elizabeth Mitchell did quite a bit of background work to write that article. Always interesting to see how she can mix quotes from scientists with her own wording like “the end of the Ice Age” as if that is what the scientists think happened. You are right Snelling acts as if lack of certainty about the dating means that the site can be dismissed. Neither of them discuss how much sediment is piled on top of these footprints and neither talk about an ice sheet after the sediment was laid down. This is because they want to say people where there at the end of the ice age rather than the beginning of an ice age. I suppose they had to say something about this fossil find and this was about all they could come up with.

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    • Virginia Peterson finds “it breathtaking how easily Snelling dismisses all relevant dating methods.” Does she mean this quote from Snelling: “All the techniques used, such as ESR (electron spin resonance), TL (thermoluminesence) and US (uranium series) rely on dubious unprovable assumptions about how present observable processes can be extrapolated back into the unobserved past and not be affected by past different environmental conditions, and past geological and other process factors that could otherwise change the attributes being measured only today in these techniques.”? Breathtaking? Really? Dubious data in, dubious data out. Is it out of line to question the unprovable assumptions used to arrive at age ranges by these methods?

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      • The thing about the ages is that they are secondary to the problem. 50,00 year, 100,000 years, 200,000 years 500,000 years 1 million years. Ok, so some methods might not be precise but who cares how many years. No method is coming close to saying 4000 years and Snelling provides no explanation for the 100 feet of sediments above the footprints and other problems. This is what makes this find so interesting with respect to origins questions not the specific dates of the footprints. Snelling and others are fixated on discounting ages and as long as they throw that in doubt they seem to think that everything can be easily explained.

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    • Mark Buchanan says:

      What I find breathtaking is Snelling’s inconsistency. From the article:

      “One day this group of people was walking along these river estuary sediment flats and left their footprints in the wet silty sediments. People still do that today. The next tide had to carry in sediments to immediately cover and preserve these footprints, or otherwise the footprints would have been washed away, the same as what is observed to happen today.”

      Compare that with this Snelling quote when talking about fossil footprints in general:

      “Biblical geologists, on the other hand, say it is the conventional geologists who, in fact, face a dilemma. If geologic change takes place slowly, surely footprints made in mud would be obliterated by wind and rain long before the prints were covered by new sediments and hardened into rock.”

      From: http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v5/n4/fossil-dino-prints

      The first quote above also sounds like a good description of uniformitarianism. Not only is the YEC model (such as it is) completely broken but creation scientists can’t seem to follow their own rules. I have tried to challenge the AiG authors via their feedback page – no response yet.

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  4. Rod, the wealth of evidence in the geologic column flatly refutes a young earth and global deluge. A greater length response by Andrew Snelling will only make him look all the more ridiculous.

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  1. […] Well, you don’t have to read about it here. We talk about it in this recent podcast so you can download it and listen to it later. Or you can read the actual article right here. […]

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