Imagine you live in northern England and you are out exploring and come upon a hidden cave entrance. Upon climbing down into the cave you discover hundreds of bones belonging to large mammals. At first you think the bones represent local animals since there are some deer, rabbits, weasels and wolves but soon it becomes clear that the majority of the bones represent mammals which you know don’t live in England today: hippos, rhinos, tigers, elephants, bears and hyenas.
How would you explain this strange collection of bones? Today the most obvious response would be that the cave represents a past age when the flora and fauna of England was completely different than today or any time in human memory. Of course the follow-up question I would ask would be; just how long ago was that? I will address that question but only after we explore this cave in a bit more detail.
William Buckland and Kirkdale Cave
The scenario above is exactly what Rev. William Buckland and other British scientists were faced with in the early 1800s. The cave was Kirkdale Cave and it was discovered by quarry workers in 1821. Prior to its opening in the quarry the cave had no accessible modern entrance and so its contents represented a bygone era untouched by this “modern” world. Through the newly created small opening Rev. Buckland, along with many other experts and curiosity seekers, entered into this time capsule filled with creatures from the past. Although it quickly became apparent that most of the animals in the cave where not animals that lived anywhere near the cave at the time, these bones were not necessarily as shocking to them as you might expect. Consider that Buckland and other geologists of the time were describing many exotic creatures from fossils found in England and all over Europe. In some ways the presence of these fossils was just another confirmation of the growing sense that life in the past was very different from what we see today.
However, these bones did present unique challenges once more detailed analyses of the cave contents were made. For example, they were not imbedded in layers of rock but rather lying near the surface in layers of clay and other calcified cave deposits the latter of which must have been deposited after the cave was formed. In other words, these bones seemed to be of recent origin relative to other fossils in England and yet they represented an exotic fauna.
Rev. Buckland like many other clergy and natural theologians of his time had already come to accept the great antiquity of the earth. He recognized fossils represented the remains of past organisms that lived in previous distant ages of the earth (see my previous post: William Buckland: Minister and Geologist Grappling with Fossil Feces, Deep Time and the Age of the Fossils). Some of his colleagues believed Noah’s flood was only a local event but Rev. Buckland still accepted the reality of a global flood. His flood though was not the flood of Woodward in the late 1600s or his modern young earth creationist’ descendants. Rather his flood was a rather tranquil flood that caused only minor revisions to the earth’s geography. For example, there were many collections of bones that had been found in other caves in many places in the world. These collections of bones were frequently claimed to be evidence that a global flood has washed animals into the deep recesses of the ground.
Buckland’s first response to Kirkdale Cave seems to have been that the bones in this cave where yet another evidence of global flood. But that didn’t last long once he started to do a thorough examination of the bones and more importantly the coprolites found buried in sediments on the floor of the cave. Buckland realized that of all the bones present one set of bones dominated the collection. Those bones were from hyenas. Other large animals like tigers, elephants and horses were represented only by a few bones rather than the whole animal. In fact the first people to pull fossils from the cave even noted the absence of complete skulls of large animals in the cave. Why would a flood only have washed in some parts of animal versus the whole skeleton? Why did the pieces that were present have signs of having been chewed on and pulled apart?
To top it off there were hundreds of remains of feces cemented into the floor of the cave. Those coprolites (fossilized feces) became an item of great interest to Buckland. He wanted to know what animal had formed them. He suspected it was hyenas but to be sure he performed experiments that included feeding modern hyenas animal carcasses and examining their feces. He found that the fossil feces in the cave were very similar to modern-day hyenas. How could a flood wash feces of just one animals into a cave and how could feces survive such a process to begin? It seemed obvious that the feces were deposited directly in the caves by hyenas.
In addition, those coprolites included bits and pieces of sub-fossilized bones. By examining those bones Buckland could determine the organisms in the hyena’s diet and that diet matched up with the other animal bones found in the cave.
These careful studies and Buckland’s observations of the natural world led him to the very logical conclusion that rather than random collection of bones washed into the cave by a great flood, this was a hyena den and that the bones found in it were the result of their dragging in scavenged meat and smaller whole prey. The bones and feces told a story of an entire ecosystem that must have existed outside of the cave. The animals and plants they would have eaten contribute to reconstructions of this ecosystem like the one above.
But if he was right, then when did these hyenas live in this cave? When did tigers, hippos, rhinos and elephants live in England?
When did these bones come to be in the cave?
The realization that this cave had been inhabited for a long time by hyenas and that they must have scavenged these exotic animals from the nearby area seemed to deal a deathblow to the belief that these bones were swept into the cave by a global flood. But this wasn’t the immediate effect of Buckland’s thorough analysis from these bones. Buckland himself wasn’t ready to give up on the idea of a biblical flood and proposed that this hyena den could be a pre-diluvial cave and the animals were part of the pre-diluvial ecosystem which could explain the presence of these animals in such northern latitudes. To support this he looked to another observation made in the cave to hold onto his global flood convictions. The bones in the cave were covered by a thin layer of clay and mineralized cave deposits. Buckland proposed that these layers came from a relatively placid global flood that filled the cave with water for a short time. Obviously this isn’t the type of flood that today’s global flood advocates would espouse but it wasn’t an uncommon view at the time.
This argument wasn’t convincing even to those that supported a global flood view. And even while attempting to preserve a global flood, Buckland’s examination of the fossils, including the coprolites in this cave and his conclusions about the ecology of the former inhabitants, firmly established that the world in the past was very different from the world that we experience in the present.
Modern young earth creationism and the Kirkdale cave
Kirkdale Cave presents a whole different set of challenged to modern young earth creationists (YECs) since they view a global flood very differently than many global flood advocates from the 1800s.
Modern YECs could attempt to explain Kirkdale cave in one of two ways:
1) Deny that the caves are evidence of deliberative habitation and suggest they are just a collection of random bones. If this is the case then they could claim that it is possible that this is still just a collection of stuff swept into a cave produced in the latter stages of a global flood and the collection of animals represented is happenstance. YEC Terry Mortenson seems to suggest just such a response in his book “Great Turning Point” in which he discusses a contemporary of Rev. Buckland named George Young and how Young had included in his book a “refutation of Buckland’s post-diluvian hyena den theory of the cave.” I looked up Young’s book from 1823 and the account is quite interesting but makes no mention of the Buckland’s coprolite evidence which is crucial in establishing biotic history of the cave. Young’s refutation makes little sense today and wasn’t widely accepted even among Christians of his day.
2) Accept that the cave formed after the flood but then argue right after the flood that all these animals migrated all the way to England within a hundred years after the flood, were killed or scavenged by hyenas and then the cave was blocked off by ice age deposits between 250 and 500 years after the flood. After that ice age the climate never returned to the same conditions as before which is why these animals don’t live there now. Further they would also likely argue that the unique species present at that time that don’t exist today evolved (saber-toot cats, whooly rhinos, cave hyenas etc..) from the pairs of animals kinds on the ark and then went extinct after the ice age.
The second alternative is the one that most YECs will turn to when faced with explaining the strange collection of extinct animals found in caves like this one and many others in Europe. But is this explanation at all plausible? I don’t think so and here are a few reasons why?
Not nearly enough time! This cave represents a long series of events each of which take long periods of time. Just a few of these are: After the formation of the limestone rock, the cave had to form. Cave formation itself is a YEC post-flood event. The plants in the area had to develop to the point of being able to support a wide range of large mammals such as elephants and hippos. Animals had to migrate from Noah’s ark all the way to England and increase greatly in numbers at the same time. The cave had to become accessible to habitation (ie. no longer constantly wet and actively forming) and the inhabited long enough for the thousands of bones to have been dragged in.
Furthermore, Buckland noted in his paper detailing the bones found there that there were obvious differences in the degree of degradation of the bones (Young, 1823, doesn’t discuss this evidence when he suggests the bones were deposited by a flood). Some were only lightly degraded while others that were almost completely dissolved. This suggested to Buckland that they came into the cave over long periods of time such that some had been there much longer than others.
For YECs, all of these things had to happen within 250 year total time because in the YEC timeline a single great ice age commenced within 250 years after the flood which would have put this part of England under and ice sheet and thus made it impossible for the animals to live there any longer. After the ice age the land was never fit for most of these animals and the cave was no longer accessible for habitation (see below).
No mechanism for getting the animals to England during the presumed time frame. I’ve written about the submerged land of Doggerland before (Fishing for Fossils in the North Sea: The Lost World of Doggerland). This is a land that lies underneath the sea between England, Denmark and the Netherlands today. There is abundant evidence that it was once was dry land and probably something like subarctic tundra in terms of vegetation and animals. This occurred during the last ice age because that is when the ocean levels would have been much lower. But right after the flood in the young earth view this land would have been submerged because the ice caps had not yet formed. As a result England would have been an island prior to the ice age.
But, during the ice age, this cave would have been under a sheet of ice. Therefore we can safely conclude that this cave had to have been occupied prior to an ice age. The only time that YECs can find to have this cave inhabited by hyenas is before the ice age when England was an island or possible the first couple of years of lower sea level for the ice age hit its apex. Why would hippos, tigers, bears, wolves etc.. migrate to this land and become established prior to the ice age? If this area was getting colder and colder every year why migrate north?
Kirkdale Cave and the Effects of Glaciation
This brings me to the last bit of evidence that really should make a YEC pause and reflect on the meaning of this cave. This cave was discovered during quarry excavation rather than through any natural opening. This is because the cave had no natural opening at the time of its discovery.
If it had not natural opening how could so many animals bones have been brought into it? This observation was one reason that the initial thinking was that a large flood has washed bones in through small crevices rather than having been occupied. What Buckland came to understand later in his life through the work of Louis Agassiz, the famed American geologists who studied a new idea called glaciation, was that England could have been covered by a glacier during an ice age. That glacier would have scraped off land and also deposited it in new places.
Suddenly the lack of a natural opening had an explanation: that the reason the cave appeared to have no entrance was that its entrance had been destroyed by glacial ice. So here we have evidence again that pointed to the cave as being pre-ice age at a minimum. Over the last 100 years more work has been done on the cave and the age of the cave has been placed around 121,000 years which would actually place its time of habitation several ice ages into the past rather than just before the last ice age. That date conforms well with what is known about the climate at the time from fossils of the same age. During that time it is quite possible that England had a climate that could support the types of animals found in the cave. After a climate shift a large glacier must have shut off the cave to the outside world. So this cave really is a time capsule that shows us what life was like before the cave was closed.
As I read about Kirkdale Cave including the original descriptions I was struck once again with how committed Christians have been grappling with the interpretation of God’s general revelation in creation for many centuries. Christians have been deeply involved in the collection of data and its interpretation and thus have been instrumental in developing our modern understanding of earth’s history.
What is striking about individuals like Buckland and especially natural theologians from the 17th and 18th centuries is that they worked in an environment in which their views of the Bible did not make them pariahs in their culture and yet the data they collected caused them to see the world differently. No one was forcing them to believe in deep time but rather they were driven to accept the antiquity of the earth by their observations of the world.
At the time Kirkdale Cave was just another in a long line of discoveries that was first explained in the context of a global flood but which observations and common sense reasoning compelled clergy and natural theologians like Buckland to look for another explanation. The bones in Kirkdale Cave present no less of a challenge to a global flood and young earth than it did in the 1800s. To the contrary, with nearly another 200 years of investigations of geology and paleontology of Kirkdale Cave and similar sites in Europe the evidence for an ancient earth has only become stronger.
PATRICK, J. BOYLAN. A NEW REVISION OF THE PLEISTOCENE MAMMALIAN FAUNA OF KIRKDALE CAVE, YORKSHIRE. July 1981 Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, 43, 253-280. doi: 10.1144/pygs.43.3.253
Cadbury, Deborah (2001), The Dinosaur Hunters: A True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World, Fourth Estate, London, ISBN 9781857029635
Gordon, Elizabeth Oak (1894), The life and correspondence of William Buckland, D.D., F.R.S., John Murray, London
Rudwick, Martin J.S. (2008), Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform, The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-73128-6
Rupke, Nicolaas (1983). The Great Chain of History: William Buckland and the English School of Geology 1814-1850. Oxford University Press.