Trillions of stone artifacts cover the surface of the African continent. The product of the manufacturing of stone tools by hunters and gathers over long periods of time, these stone artifacts literally carpet the ground in some places in Egypt and Libya.
Just how much Stone-Age produced rock could be strewn across the African continent?
Trillions and trillions of artifacts!
The trillion isn’t a typo. That number sounds absolutely fantastic, doesn’t it? Let’s take a look at how these numbers were derived.
The results of a study just published (see references below) shows how incredibly dense stone artifacts can be in some places in Africa. Working in a remote location in southern Libya, researchers took surveys from hundreds of one or two-meter square plots. From the tens of thousands of artifacts found in them, they estimated a minimum density of 250,000 stone artifacts* per square kilometer is present in this portion of Libya.**
And this only included what was visible on the surface.
The researchers surveyed other published estimates of stone-tool densities in other areas of Africa. For example, some parts of the Nubian Desert average 12 million artifacts per square kilometer. They also calculate expected stone production given certain assumptions about population size and stone tool use over time. Overall, the researchers estimate that stone tool production across the entire continent of Africa has resulted in an average of 500,000 to 5,000,000 artifacts per square kilometer.
Africa is roughly 30 million square kilometers in area, so that would put the total number of stone artifacts between 15 and 150 trillion. Yes, that is trillion with a T—an astounding number.
Now these estimates may be too high but even if the authors overestimated the number of rocks several fold, it is clear that the number of rocks that have been manipulated by human hands that lie on or just under the surface of the African landscape is enormous.
A few months ago I wrote (How Rare Are Stone Age Artifacts? A Visit to a Stone Tool-Making Factory in South Africa) about a dense stone artifact site in South Africa and estimated that in just a few acres there are billions upon billions of artifacts. Furthermore, in South Africa alone, there must be hundreds of billions of artifacts.
But this new analysis shows that my estimates were far too conservative.
Another Nail in the Young-Earth Coffin
If young-earth creationism (YEC) weren’t already mortally wounded by abundant evidence from the observed world and careful exegesis of Scripture itself, these trillions of stone artifacts from the Stone-Age tool industry would certainly be the dagger to the heart.
I will save a full-blown analysis of the damage to the young-earth hypothesis that these artifacts cause for another time. For now, let’s just hit the highlights.
The standard young-earth view proposes that the “stone age” was a short period of just a few hundred years in length (500 being the absolute max). This period spans from the time when families spread out from Babel 4270 years ago (2020 AD to 2250 BC) to about the time of Abraham.
Above is a YEC Ice Age timeline from Answers in Genesis, a YEC apologetics ministry, showing also where stone-tool making is expected in the young earth timeline.
Let us be generous and give the YEC hypothesis 500 years for the Stone Age. I have done a few back-of-the-envelope calculations to test how the young-earth chronology fits our observations of stone-age tools in Africa.
Here are my assumptions:
- Time span of 500 years.
- 25 years per generation (eg. the replacement rate of population)
- 10,000 stone artifacts* produced by each person (male and female) in their lifetime
- Average population size during this time: 100,000 hunters and gatherers/nomads
Now for the calculation: 20 generations x 100,000 people gives us 2 million people who produced stone tools. If each person produced 10,000 artifacts during his or her lifetime then this would result in 20 billion total artifacts, or 40 million artifacts generated per year.
Now, 20 billion artifacts in 500 years is a lot, but it is definitely nowhere close to the 15 to 150 trillion artifacts estimated to be in Africa alone. At 40 million artifacts per year, it would take a population of 100,000 individuals 100,000 years to produce just 4 trillion artifacts.
Modern science has estimated that the Stone Age lasted as long as 2 million years. Assuming similar populations (100,000) during that time fame, this is about the time needed to produce the quantity of artifacts that we observe today.
Yet here is what the YECs assume. A small group of people left Babel in 2250, migrated to Africa, forgot all the technology advances they once knew in Mesopotamia, learned how to fashion rock into tools (this is a technology itself), extracted and manipulated enough rock into stone tools to have made over one million pyramids in just 150-500 years?
Some YEC will doubtless claim that a group of 1000 people leaving Babel could have grown into a population of millions within 500 years and thus they could have produced several hundred billion artifacts. This still doesn’t achieve the observed number of artifacts and that population growth would be unrealistic given the very difficult life of a nomad especially competing with lions and hyenas with only stone tools.
Furthermore, remember that we are not considering the billions of stone tools that exist outside of African in Asian and the Americas. Presumably people made their way to the Americas not long (tens of years maybe in the YEC timeline) after they came to Africa and yet the volume of stone tools in North America is but a very small fraction of what is observed in Africa.
My estimate of 20 billion artifacts is incredibly generous, and yet it leaves the YECs exceedingly short of explaining the vast numbers of stone tools that are so easily observed. The sheer abundance of stone tools in Africa is one of most devastating pieces of evidence against the young-earth hypothesis that I have encountered. Until I started looking at reports of stone artifacts in Africa I had no idea that stone tools were so ubiquitous. We see them in museums and may think they are very rare.
Young Earth Creationists believe that their interpretation of the Bible provides the best way to understand observations from geology, biology, astronomy and anthropology. However, these stone artifacts provide yet another example of where YEC model fails to explain what we observe in the world around us.
No doubt, trillions of artifacts raises difficult questions for all Christians as they seek to understand the anthropological message in scriptures. Young earth creationism seeks to provide a safe haven for escaping those questions but the safety it seeks for its followers is only an illusion which is why so many are apt to become disillusioned over time when they are confronted with the overwhelming evidence of their failed paradigm. Reasons to Believe, BioLogos, and countless other organizations and Christian scholars have wrestled with data such as these artifacts and produced explanatory frameworks for understanding both the Biblical and physical evidence. These ideas continue to be tested today by scientists and theologians. That such alternative explanations are even possible should be evidence in itself that the young earth viewpoint is inadequate.
General audience summary of the research with more pictures: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2991399/The-man-landscape-Vast-carpet-stone-tools-littering-cliff-Sahara-desert.html
A creationists take on the Stone Age: http://creation.com/a-better-model-for-the-stone-age
The research paper which I used as my source:
(2015) Lithic Landscapes: Early Human Impact from Stone Tool Production on the Central Saharan Environment. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0116482. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0116482
* A stone artifact includes finished stone tools plus all of the debitage (stone flakes resulting from stone tool production). So artifacts are all pieces of stone that are part stone tool production. The production of a stone hand-axe may result in a hundred rock artifacts. A production of 10,000 stone artifacts per person over their lifetime would represent a person involved in stone tool production on a regular basis. It is likely that there were specialist in a community that make stone tools rather than every individual but I have assumed everyone made stone tools in the past so that my estimate of stone tool production will be as conservative as possible.
** Update: In 2018 a paper was published that suggested that some or many of the artifacts from the study above may be the product of natural processes. Research continues to understand landscape processes including rock weathering. If this study is correct the estimates in the article above my be overestimates by several times. Nonetheless, the numbers of stone artifacts in Africa are still in the hundreds of billions and represent a challenge to the YEC chronology of human occupation and cultural capacities.
Knight, Jasper, and Andrea Zerboni. “Formation of desert pavements and the interpretation of lithic-strewn landscapes of the central Sahara.” Journal of Arid Environments 153 (2018): 39-51.