A Diluvialist Response to the Buckland’s Kirkdale Cave Hyena Den

In my recent comments about Ken Ham’s view of modern creationism I stated that flood geology was nothing more than a recapitulation of many previous attempts to construct a naturalistic theory of the earth while maintaining a young earth presupposition.  These prior attempts to conform geological data to such youthful constraints have not stood the test of time.  Rather, they have been tested and found wanting numerous times.

I have read many texts from the 17th through the 19th century which promote the global flood as an explanatory framework for fossils and the geography of the earth.    The books from the 1800s, in particular, seem so familiar in their rhetorical style. However, many of the specific evidences  produced have changed over time because they didn’t hold up to scrutiny even in their day. Today, the “modern” creationists movement led by Ken Ham use many of the same rhetorical strategies and even some of the same failed evidences although they have also mustered up a new batch of theories of the earth they hope can finally supplant the now 200 year old consensus view.

With respect to how the creationist use of evidence has changed, huge quantities of bones across Europe provide a simple example.  These bones were presented by diluvialists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries to the public as proof that a global flood had washed animals into cracks and crevices of the earth leaving them buried in jumbled piles.  Obviously this is not an argument that any modern creationist would make.  Instead today’s creationists would claim that the caves themselves were formed after a global flood and therefore bones deposited in the caves must have been deposited in the caves after the flood rather than as a result of the flood.

conversationsonGeologybookcoverOver the weekend, I read a large portion of the interminably titled work – Conversations on Geology: comprising a familiar explanation of the huttonian and wernerian systems; the mosaic geology, as explained by Mr. Granville Penn; and the Late Discoveries of Professor Buckland, Humboldt, Dr. Macculloch, and others, by James Rennie who according to Ralph O’Conner, The Earth on Show, is the proper author rather than the attribution to Granville Penn by Google Books.

Published in 1828, the book  written as a conversation between a mother (Mrs. R) and her son (Edward) and daughter (Christina) in which the mother takes questions about geology. Mrs. R. provides a number of possible answers based on a survey of the current literature of the day but almost always defers to the superior opinion of Granville Penn – a scriptural geologist.

I want to share just a few quotes to give you a flavor for some of the dialogue and then I will relate these quotes to what we have learned in the past month about William Buckland (1784-1856) and his writings about the Kirkdale Cave in 1821.

From page 335 on Google books:

Mrs. R.
There is something more remarkable, however in Professor Buckland’s account; for he says it must appear probably from these facts, particularly from the broken state and apparently gnawed condition of the bones, that the cavern at Kirkdale was, during a long succession of years, inhabited by hyaenas, and were the agents by which the teeth and the bones of the other animals were there collected, their carcasses having been dragged in for food, after being caught as prey in the immediate vicinity of the den; and, as they could not have been dragged from any very great distance, it follows, that the animals thus fed upon all lived and died not far from the spot where their remains are now found.


It would not be easy to convince me of this singular theory, without much stronger evidence than appears from this account.

Mrs. R.

These, however, are all the material facts, expect that it is farther stated, that the dung of the hyaenas has also been found in the cave, and the gnawed state of the bones is accounted for by hyaenas, large dogs, being very partial to bones.

It would have been more in point to show, that they are partial to caves, and that they drag their prey thither.

Mrs. R.

On the contrary, Mr. Penn shows, that beasts of prey usually devour what they kill upon the spot, and that this hyaena’s cave is a fabulous as Aesop’s lion’s den, as neither lions nor hyaenas live in this manner.

… As to the supposed dung of the hyaenas, Mr. Penn very plausibly thinks, that it is nothing more, as its chemical analysis proves, than decayed animal substance mixed with the limestone.


These arguments seem conclusive against the theory, even were it not thought singular that so many animals, naturally inhabitants of warm countries, should live in England; and what is more singular, should abound in such numbers, so very near a den of hyaenas as to allow of their being dragged into it.

An interpretive drawing of William Buckland crawling into Kirkdale Cave where he found extinct cave hyenas and the remains of their prey. Drawn by Buckland’s friend William Conybeare.
An interpretive drawing of William Buckland crawling into Kirkdale Cave where he found extinct cave hyenas and the remains of their prey. Drawn by Buckland’s friend William Conybeare.

I’ve written a bit about Rev. William Buckland and the Kirdale cave (Kirkdale Cave Hyena Den:  A Young Earth Puzzle Since 1821) and so it was very interesting to read this commentary on Buckland’s thoughts written just a few years later.   I called this cave a young earth puzzle and here we get a taste for the initial diluvialist/biblical geologist response, just 7 years later, to Buckland’s description and explanation for the Kirkdale cave and its contents.   Remember that Buckland himself believed in a recent global flood but he thought it occurred after the hyenas had inhabited the cave.  He only considered the small layer of sediment covering the bones to be the result of that flood.  Here we see Mrs R. taking relying on the superior explanation of Granville Penn – early 19th century deluvialist – that the bones must have been washed into the cave by a global flood.  Mrs R. and Penn recognized that Bucklands explanation required a great deal of time and thus they sought an alternative explanation for the assemblage of bones found in this and other caves.

What I find fascinating about this dialogue and the rest of the book is the rhetorical methods used to reject the mineralists (ie. deep-time geologists). The discussion sounds reasonable in many ways unless you know that how much information is being omitted or dismissed out of hand.  Such is the case here, Mrs. R. should be aware of the Bucklands arguments and yet doesn’t make her audience fully aware of all the facts but only the ones that she wishes to rebut.  These tactics are so similar to those from today’s YEC literature.  Ironically all of her evidence held up as evidence of a global flood is not considered evidence of a young earth today.

Mrs. R and Granville Penn clearly recognized that Buckland’s proposal required there to be a different climate with different animals and process of scavenging that must have taken place over a long period of time.  So much time, in fact, that they could not conceive of the bones in this cave having come to be there by natural means and thus sought to have the bones washed there in one large catastrophic event.  No YEC that I know of would use this argument today. Rather they argue the opposite about the Kirkdale cave.  They agree with Buckland that this was a hyena cave and that bones were dragged in by hyenas.  They agree with nearly every aspect of Buckland’s explanation except how long it took and how long ago it occurred.  YECs today propose that bones in Kirkdale cave and other European  caves resulting from post-global flood early occupations of the land by ice age animals.   Therefore, the hyenas and all their activities had to have taken place in a couple hundred year period around the time of the “biblical” ice age just 4250 years ago.

Today, Buckland’s explanation for the origins of the bones in this cave is universally accepted and thus has stood the test of time.  Despite numerous attempts to find an alternative explanation, this cave remains an unsolved mystery to creationists who are left only with “it could happen” ad hoc explanations.  For example, notice the dismissal of evidence of hyena dung.  Mrs. R. references another expert suggesting the dung is just animal remains mixed with limestone. The descriptions from Buckland make it clear that clear evidence of dung origin is being ignored in exchange for a “nothing more” that x explanation.  Buckland went as far as to examine the feces of living hyenas to test his theories about the remains found in the cave and is answered with nothing but hopeful conjecture.

Early skepticism of climate change

Here is one additional quote from page 343 that concerns the Kirkdale cave. Mrs. R. attributes all the bones, not only the Kirkdale cave but other caverns in Europe, to being swept in by a global flood and speaks approvingly – see below – of Granville Penn’s dismissal of changing climates as a possible cause of the distribution of warm climate animals in Britain.

I think Mr. Penn has been much more happy in his accounting for the manner in which those tropical animals have been transported to northern climates, and buried in the soil and amongst rocks, and, if he make good his point in this, it will save us all the discussions which have been made with respect to the change of climate into a colder temperature in modern times, which I believe, also, is contrary to many well-ascertained facts.

A decade after this book was published Louis Agassiz proposed (1837) the idea of an Ice Age to account for evidence of vast expanses of glaciers in Europe and North America.  Prior to that time there were already suggestions that the climate in the past was not the same as it was in the present.  In particular the fossil record seemed to point to a warmer climate in the past.   Fossils of animals found in locations far from their normal environment lead to the idea that in the past the environment in those regions was very different.  For example, the age of the reptiles seemed to put many reptiles in much further northern latitudes than they could survive today.

Here Mrs. R. suggests that “many well-ascertained facts” are available that deny that the climate was warmer in the past.  It would have been interesting to hear of that evidence.  Her claim sounds very similar to that of young earth creationists today who make claims that the facts don’t support an old earth but are simply making the claim because they believe it must be true.

3 thoughts on “A Diluvialist Response to the Buckland’s Kirkdale Cave Hyena Den

  1. I think you already know that I enjoy your posts and eagerly await each one. Thank you so much for the mention; I was startled and humbled that a person of your depth and skill would find it worthy of a link. It made my day!


  2. This comment about intentional omission struck me:
    “The discussion sounds reasonable in many ways unless you know that how much information is being omitted or dismissed out of hand.”

    You are so right and this is clearly a tactic being used at AiG today. How many times have you heard or read some version of the following in one of Ken Ham’s talks or writings:

    “…if there really was a global Flood, you would expect to find billions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the earth … which is exactly what you do find!”

    This is usually delivered in the form of a punch line so it has rhetorical power and appeals to common sense. Everybody laughs and nods to their friends. The problem is that it’s not anything like the whole story! Left out (intentionally, it seems) are any details about the identity or arrangement of those dead things or any hints that there exists a reasonably consistent sequence of those things from the lowest to the highest layers all over the earth – a pattern consistent with slow development over long ages but not at all consistent with a catastrophic model. No, those details are left out and the listener/reader leaves feeling like they are informed (“Hey, sure, there are fossils and bones everywhere!”) but completely missing the implications of that evidence (that there is a recognizable geological column that needs to be explained).

    Ironically it was exactly this “joke” delivered by Ham at some conference I attended that started me thinking that these guys weren’t really honest brokers of information to otherwise uninformed audiences. That was the day I stopped laughing.


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