Hundreds of millions and possibly billions of stone artifacts sit just under parking lots and homes in Kathu, South Africa. A small sample of those artifacts were examined a few years ago in a vacant lot scheduled to be developed into a shopping plaza. A simple trench and pits dug in that lot revealed a very dense collection of artifacts referred to as an “astronomical” collection in a report by a South African museum commissioned to survey the site and assess their anthropological significance.
How many artifacts were found? In just a few meter-square sample pits over a several acres, archaeologists collected tens of thousands of stone tools and products of tool making. The archaeologists estimated that there are on average 900 stone artifacts per 100x100x10 cm volume of material in this vacant lot. Those artifact reach can be found up to two meters deep throughout much of the area. This high concentration of artifacts along with available source rock in outcrops nearby suggests that long ago this was a tool making center.
When I first read about this incredibly rich stone tool site it got me wondering: just how prevalent are stone tools and products of stone tool production? I really didn’t know, but as I studies this site further and several others from around Africa and the Middle East I was absolutely stunned by the sheer volume of stone artifacts that have been found. This lead me to ask myself the question, just how many stone tools or artifacts could there be in the soils of Africa? My back-of-the-envelope calculations seemed so ridiculously large that I found it difficult to believe at first.
For example, the Kathu Townlands vacant lot site which was surveyed covered a couple of acres. In that area alone I estimate there are between 36 and 360 million artifacts. Those are astounding numbers. But then consider that large numbers of artifacts have been found outside this lot. The total area covered by this stone tool manufacturing center is now thought to extend over some 25 hectares (61 acres). Using much more conservative estimates for the density of artifacts and depth to which they occur, I still come up with a low-end estimate of 1 billion stone artifacts in these soils.
But the gaudy numbers don’t stop there. Within a few miles of this location there are several other high density stone artifact sites not to mention hundreds of other known stone-tool manufacturing locations in South Africa. And these are only the sites that we know about. There are almost certainly more sites yet to be discovered.
Billions and billions of artifacts and millions and millions of tools
Stone artifacts in South Africa alone must number in the tens of billions if not hundreds of billions. Most of these are not completed stone tools. Stone artifacts include all the shards of stone that result from tool production. The number of complete stone tools would be a small percentage of these artifacts. Even so, we are talking about tens of millions of stone tools. The more I read the more clear it is that I am likely to be underestimating their abundance. And this is just South Africa. Stone artifacts are found abundantly throughout Africa.
Maybe the best evidence of how common stone tools and other artifacts are in South Africa can be found in the final conclusions of the report by the McGregor Museum that I mentioned earlier. Although they only were able to examine a tiny fraction of the material at this site they conclude: “we recommend that the permit for destruction of the remaining archaeological deposits of Erf 5116 be approved.”
These tools are thought to be a half a million years old and yet getting more material isn’t considered valuable enough to stop this site from being paved over. Why? Because there are so many stone tools that we hardly need to collect another million of them. A museum giving permission for development and not fighting for protection should be enough to convince you that stone artifacts are commonplace in Africa.
The Stone Age, Creationism and Adam
The existence of stone tool technology and the incredible abundance of stone tools over vast swaths of the world and produced over long periods of time raises some challenges for some Christians who believe that all stone-age tools were made within the past 4500 years following the departure of Noah from the ark and subsequent re-peopling of the earth. While especially challenging to this young-earth branch of evangelical Christianity there are questions of interest to those of all faith traditions in these tools.
Here are some particular questions that I am hoping address in future posts:
- When did the people live that produced all these stone tools?
- How do young earth creationists (YECs) fit the Stone Age into their post-flood timeline?
- For evangelical Christians, what challenges, if any, do these tools present for out understanding of a historical Adam?
- If there had been a global flood would stone tools be expected to be found in the geological column?
- Are all stone tools produced the same way or are there different stone tool production technologies?
Kathu Townland Stone Age References:
Walker, Steven, Michael Chazan, Vasa Lukich, and David Morris. “A second Phase 2 archaeological data recovery at the site of Kathu Townlands for Erf 5116: Kathu, Northern Cape Province.” http://www.sahra.org.za/sites/default/files/heritagereports/Rooisands_mall_second_Phase_2_20130826.pdf
Walker, Steven JH, Vasa Lukich, and Michael Chazan. “Kathu Townlands: A High Density Earlier Stone Age Locality in the Interior of South Africa.” PloS one 9, no. 7 (2014): e103436. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0103436
I have examined some stone tools. And I understand how they often are (or can be) made. But with many of the “simpler” tools, I have often wondered: How can we be sure they were MADE or purposefully SHAPED by human artisans . . . rather than somehow formed through natural processes and then IDENTIFIED as “suitable” or “worthy” of the kinds of services to which a human would want to put them?
Great question. Sorry about my late response. I’m no expert on this so take the following with that in mind. I know that there are some rock artifacts which are disputed because there are natural processes that can cause similar shaped objects. In all my reading the marks of authentic shaping is related to analysis of the pattern of shards produced. If the directions by which a chip was made come from uniform directions rather than randomly about the rock then that is considered evidence of purposeful action. I might liken it to the analysis of cut marks on bones. Many fossils bones or subfossils have marks on them. They could come from rolling around in gravel during transport or from bite marks from a carnivore eating the flesh off them or from stone tools cutting away the meat. To the untrained eye the marks might appear the same but experimental evidence and comparison of lots of examples allows experts to distinguish the various types of marks.
Interesting article! Question: When did hand axes go out of fashion in Africa? I ask because I recently picked up one in Gauteng Province, South Africa, and I am trying to work out its minimum age. As far as I can work out, Neanderthals in Europe continued to make hand axes until recently, but they did not live in Africa, so perhaps here the hand axe was replaced by more advanced stone tools longer ago? I haven’t been able to find any clear information on this on the web.
I’m not going to be able to help much since I’m don’t have a lot of knowledge in this area. But I’m pretty confident that hand axes were a common element of stone tools through out the stone age. That would cover a long time (500,000 years at least) so just having a stone axe doesn’t narrow the time frame own much. I’m sure an expert could narrow that down quite a bit. Although hand axes have been used over a long time they clearly changed a lot. The methods of producing them, the materials that were used changed and enough is probably known such that a person could look at the axe and assign it to a particular period.
Simply put they have not discovered trillions of hand axes, in fact the amount of material is very little, much less than should be estimated from a millions of years theory. You are projecting this problem onto creationists. They will tell you that geological changes are responsible for the lack of evidence and material found from the stone age. There should be huge amounts of bones and human remains, but we find only a few scattered around. Well the bible also agrees on this geological change, it was called the flood, and we believe that is why the earth is covered in sedimentary rock, and below the sedimentary rock lies frozen tropical forests all over the world, including the Arctic. Cheers.
Hi Eric, thanks for your response. Like Terry Mortenson who responded from AiG you seem to be interpreting “artifacts” as complete hand-axes. Very true there are not trillions of hand axes. There are trillions of stone artifacts most of which are the chips produced in fashioning stone axes. These are all the product of stone tool production as I defined in the article and the articles that I reference.
As as an evidence driven YEC convert, I’ll report that the abundance of arrowheads in north America fits comfortably in between the break up of a preciously drowned super continent and the present. If your presupposition is geologic/deep time rather than faster continental drift, then the problem becomes the mathematical, cosmological and megalithic technology of ancient civilizations. Study the trends in masonry technology in South America; it is one of decline, or lost technology!
Try this; start asking the geology academics when they first heard that the dating of igneous rock using nuclear decay rates was a theory. While you’re taking your own survey, start collecting antique geology textbooks and see how many mention that little factoid after 1940! If you get pressed by fallacy of sweeping generalities or appeal to authority (“many hundreds of scientific papers” or “dating is widely accepted by the scientific community”) pop the critical question;
What two different elements were found to produce concordant isotopic ages consistent within the published margin of error to the know age of the same specimen rock?