Billions of Stone Artifacts: Witness to the Ancient Occupation of the Saharan Desert

The Nubian Desert, which encompasses 400,000 square kilometers of the eastern portion of the Sahara Desert, contains a rich assortment of stone tools and products of Stone Age industries.  Scattered stones among the drifting dunes speak of a time long past during which this land was covered by grassy hills and ungulates, lions, and hyenas called this place home.   The presence of prey and edible vegetation attracted nomads to this region, though today it is an inhospitable desert.

These nomads left little behind that would survive the brutal desert heat, but they did leave many stone tools and the artifacts of their production.  These implements now lay scattered on a surface eroded by the harsh desert winds.

Just how many artifacts litter the surface of the deserts of Africa?  I suggested earlier this year (Trillions of Artifacts: A Young Earth Anthropology Problem) that there could be trillions of them.   This number seriously challenges the post-Flood chronology assumed by Young Earth Creationists, including Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis (AIG) organization dedicated to interpreting data within the confines of their particular interpretation of the Bible.  Recognizing this serious challenge, Dr. Terry Mortenson of AIG proposed a number of explanations for why the number of Stone Age artifacts could be overestimated.

Unlike southern Libya, which my first article examined, where some landscapes are characterized by nearly ubiquitous stone artifacts of bygone hominid occupation, the Nubian Desert in Egypt has been studied in greater detail.  With this additional data, we can test Mortenson’s proposals of 1) a hyper-compressed chronology for the formation of stone tools and 2) the production of artifacts by natural and random processes rather than via intentional/intelligent (hominid) design.

In the next two posts, I will present data that refutes Dr. Mortensen’s proposals.  This data will come from two areas of the Nubian Desert of Egypt where large surveys have been performed for the purpose of collecting and studying stone artifacts. The first area is in the deserts immediately west of the Nile River in central Egypt, and the second is deep in the desert in southeast Egypt, far from any source rock for producing stone tools or any large water body.  The first area is considered a high density site, while the second is a low density artifact site, for reasons that will become apparent.

Between these two sites, I’ll demonstrate that stone tools are readily found across more than 70 square kilometers of desert.  Just how many artifacts are there?  A whole lot – enough to require that Dr. Mortensen’s develop some new hypotheses.

Let us look a bit closer at the first site before we estimate the number of artifacts that exist in the sands of the Sahara Desert.

Stone artifacts are common just west of the Nile River valley

Our first destination in Egypt is the desert to the west of the Nile River, near the city of Abydos.   Here an area approximately 63 square kilometers was surveyed by walking lines and every 100 meters close to the Nile River, or every 250 meters in the remote desert regions, after which a one-meter radius collection circle was drawn on the ground and all of the stones visible on the surface that appeared to be potential artifacts were collected.   Altogether, the team of scientists (see Olszewski and colleagues reference below) took collections from 1915 of these plots.  Those determined to have authentic stone artifacts included 132 sites that they called “high density” locations and 451 lower density sites.

(In the Google maps image above, about half of the area visible here was surveyed)

That amounts to a 30% success rate of finding at least one artifact in a sample plot!

This is a remarkable success rate. Imaging walking 100 meters in a straight line, then setting down a 2 meter diameter circle and having nearly a one in three chance of finding at least one ancient stone artifact.  In some cases, many dozens of stone artifacts were found within a single sample circle.

Altogether, the 1915 plots yielded more than 25,000 confirmed artifacts with some coming from just outside the original plots at high density locations where more intensive collecting occurred.

Let’s crunch a few numbers and see just how many artifacts there may be in this region of Egypt and beyond.

Each sample circle (2 meters in diameter) represents 3.14 square meters of area surveyed.   There were 1915 total plants and so a minimum of 6013 square meters (1915 plots x 3.14 meters squared) were surveyed in this project.    One square kilometer is equal to 1,000,000 square meters (1000 meters x 1000 meters) and so the 63 square kilometers in which the plots were surveyed is equivalent to 63 million square meters.

If we divide the total area by the area surveyed, we can learn how many times the actual surveyed area would need to be duplicated to cover the entire 63 square kilometers.  This is 63 million divided by 6013 meters squared or 10,400 times.  If there were approximately 25,000 artifacts in just 6013 square meters, then we can multiply this by 10,400 ,and we get an estimate of how many artifacts are in the entire region.  This yields an estimate of 260,000,000 (260 million) artifacts!

Given that not all 25,000 artifacts were collected from the 1915 plots and there are more high-density sites closer to the Nile Valley this may could be considered an overestimate of the total number of artifacts in this region.  However, one must also take into account that these estimates are derived solely from artifacts visible on the surface, and that surely there must be many more artifacts buried in the sands and eroded and washed down stream.  Hence, it would be reasonable to conclude that the 26 million value is not an overestimate of the artifacts in this region but rather it is likely an underestimate.

If all of Egypt has the same density of artifacts, then Egypt could have 4 trillion stone artifacts (4 million artifacts per square kilometer on average X the size of Egypt which is 1.01 million square kilometers).

A portion of desert just west of Abydos, Egypt. Stone artifacts would not be found on sand dunes because they have formed since the stones were dropped. Artifacts are found on the desert “pavement” which is a portion of desert in which sand has been wiped clean and small rocks make up the desert floor. Upenn article image found here:

It is difficult to say if this region is representative of the typical density of artifacts in Egypt.  But, 4 trillion, 400 billion, or just 40 billion stone artifacts.  It doesn’t really matter. These are all huge numbers which must be accounted for by anyone who wishes to explain the history of peoples in this part of the world.   Even the lowest number is a witness to a long history of stone tool production, especially if the people who made these tools only lived in small nomadic groups.

Lots of artifacts – very little time

Young Earth Creationists such as Dr. Mortenson are compelled to compress the production of these artifacts into a very brief window of time.  Because the numbers of artifacts reflect the need for either a lot of time – many thousands of years if not hundreds of thousands – or a massive population – hundreds of millions of people – Dr.  Mortenson is reluctant to accept that there could be as many stone artifacts as this survey suggests.

We will see in the next post that Dr. Mortenson only has a few decades or possibly a century, at best, to work with to explain the origin of all of the stone artifacts.  At the same time, he has little reason to believe that African populations were in the millions prior to the founding of the Egyptian dynasties.  Hence the need to either call into doubt the methods of estimating the number of artifacts or question the identification of the stones as artifacts.

Before we set about critiquing the young earth response to all of these stone artifacts in Egypt in more detail, let’s move down to southern Egypt and take a look at another site where stone artifacts have been closely scrutinized.

Next post:  Stone fragments in the deep desert:  Randomly produced or intelligently designed?

PS.  Some of you may wonder, given the proximity of this area to the Nile River, could these artifact be left over from the time of the early Egyptian dynasties.  Almost certainly not for several reasons.  First, this region has been a desert with no reason to hunt or gather here since the founding of Egyptian civilization as we will see in the next post.  Second, Egyptians did have stone technology but even 5500 years ago the stone tools used by Egyptians in the Nile Valley were far more sophisticated than any of the very crude stone technology observed in the deep desert.  It is unlikely that two completely different technologies would have existed side-by-side in time and space.

References:  Here is a non-technical summary of the research project that collected the data that I have reported above.  There are some images here of what this area looks like today.

Chiotti, L., Olszewski, D. I., Dibble, H. L., McPherron, S. R., Schurmans, U., & Smith, J. R. (2007). Paleolithic Abydos: reconstructing individual behaviors across the high desert landscape. The Archaeology and Art of Ancient Egypt: Essays in Honor of David B O’Connor. Cairo: Supreme Council of Antiquities Press Cairo, 169-183.

Olszewski, D. I., Dibble, H. L., McPherron, S. P., Schurmans, U. A., Chiotti, L., & Smith, J. R. (2010). Nubian Complex strategies in the Egyptian high desert. Journal of human evolution59(2), 188-201.

Olszewski, D. I., Dibble, H. L., Schurmans, U.,  McPherron, S. A., & Smith, J. R. (2005). High Desert Paleolithic Survey at Abydos, Egypt.  Journal of Field Archaeology30(3), 283-303.

Cover image credit:  Upenn article image found here:

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