I have been writing about the immense number of stone artifacts that are preserved in the sands, soil and rock layers of Africa in response to the young earth creationist’s rejection of their existence or at least of their abundance. I was reminded that I had written about stone artifacts a few years ago that addressed some of the same questions that I have been addressing in recent weeks. Below, I have revisited one of those articles and updated it to reflect my more recent interest in stone artifacts.
What were stone tools used for and how do we know? Recently published work attempts to shed some light on this question. In particular the authors of this work were interested in whether cut marks on fossilized bones were evidence of human scavenging or hunting. Could simple marks on a set of bones tell us about past behavior?
The site of this fossils find is a hillside in southern Kenya where, in less than an acre, more than 3700 fossil bones and more than 2000 stone artifacts have been recovered in three distinct archaeological bearing layers spanning three vertical meters. The research paper “Earliest Archaeological Evidence of Persistent Hominin Carnivory” that details some of these fossils and artifacts was published in PLOS One which is open access if you want all the details.
What first caught my eye when I scanned this article was the mention that Dienotherium bones were found at this location. I have written about Dienotherium in the past (See: NH Notes: A Trunk and Tusk-Challenged Fossil Elephant). This was the extinct elephant with the downward pointing tusks that was larger than any elephant alive today. The presence of Dienotherium bones at a site where human activity has been found tells us that our ancestors almost certainly saw these incredible elephants. And really, I just couldn’t pass up another chance to mention these amazing creatures.
While this paper doesn’t contain particularly earth-shattering news, especially since this site has been known for some time, I suspect that outside of the archaeological and anthropological world few people would be aware that fossil locations of such magnitude like this exist. In fact, there are thousands of sites across Africa that contain stone tools and bones but few are as dense or as well-studied as this site.
While this discovery isn’t going to make your local news or become a source of conversation in your Sunday school class, I believe there are several notable findings from this research that must be taken into account by the evangelical community in any discussion of human origins. In particular it raises some questions about the chronology of the young earth creationists understanding of human history thus this site merits some further exploration:
1) This site (see picture to left) sits on what is today the side of hill. However, the 10 meters of layers of sediments/rock in which these bones and stone tools were found are horizontally deposited with several meters of sediments above the bone/tool bearing layers. The sediments here suggest this was once the edge of a lake/marshy area. The authors of this paper suggest that the three primary layers of bones and tools were deposited over several hundred thousand years after which they were then covered with many additional meters of sediments which have turned mostly into rock after which they then eroded into the valley that we see today.
This is yet another one of these important archaeological sites where the context of deposition is what is especially challenging to the young earth creationist’s timeline. I’m really at a loss as to how, within a young earth context, such a collection of bones and massive number of stone tools could have been produced in an area of no more than an acre in just a few years. The YEC explanations have never made sense to me. We are told that we must accept an interpretation of scripture that requires that the builders of the Tower at Babel just 4250 years ago dispersed and ran to southern Kenya. Along they way they completely forgot how to make anything but the most rudimentary stone tools. Once in Kenya they butchered animals with those tools.
It is important to note the fact that there are three layers in which thousands of fossils and artifacts are present. Therefore the butchering of animals must have taken place over some period of time. Then the site accumulated even more sediment before an apparent changing environment caused the area to dry up and begin to erode exposing the bones for us to find today. It would seem far easier to interpret the context of the artifacts and bones as painting a picture of a complex and lengthy history of human habitation at this location. Young earth creationists must reject both an ancient history and a history that included a long period of habitation here because they consider this location and all of the fossils and artifacts found there as post-Flood deposits.
2) Looking a bit closer, the large number of artifacts found here strongly suggest the use of this site over a very long period of time. There are thousands of artifacts found in this one location but the rock from which the tools were made came from more than 10 miles away and so these tools would have presumably been valuable to the hunters. They simply would not have left all their tools here but would have taken them to the next hunting scavenging site if possible. There is much evidence of other large carnivores that chewed on these bones (yes there is evidence that the animal scavenging was secondary) after having been worked on by man and so it could be there were times the inhabitants had to abandon the site quickly leaving some stone implements behind. Some of these would never have been recovered until an archaeologists dug them out of the ground! So, the fact that there are thousands of stone tools at this location mixed throughout more than 10 feet of sediments suggests that this site was inhabited for a period of time on three separate occasions: there are three different layers of concentrated bones and artifacts each separated by several feet of sediments with very few bones).
There is NO evidence of a settlement here or in the area but only these bones and artifacts. If the individuals that did this butchering here had any technology beyond these tools (eg. pottery for cooking, ability to construct a fireplace) it would be evident. The tools came from rocks many miles away. If the producers of these tools had any better technology they would not have carried these rocks all this distance. And look at the quality of these stone implements (Image to the right). No one would interpret these as sophisticated instruments, even by stone-tool standards. And yet there are so many of them that it is obvious that this is the sum total of the technological capacity of the inhabitants of this area at this time. All of this fits the interpretation of a wandering group of hunter/gathers which also lends credence to the fact that the collection of remains here would have taken hundreds, if not many thousands, of years to accumulate.
What is and what isn’t found at a site can tell us about the behavior of the residents who lived there.
You might wonder why the investigators believe that this site provides evidence that the inhabitants of this region were scavengers in addition to hunters. Researches observed that there are disproportionate number of large crania (heads) preserved at the site. Since only the crania of large animals are found and not the rest of their bodies it is reasonable to infer that those crania were brought from elsewhere to this site to process.
Most animals can’t access the crania of large prey and will remove the flesh from the rest of the body first. The fact that crania have stone tool butchery marks on them and that they are found more often at this site suggests that this was the only part of the animal left to bring back to this camp. Had humans hunted these large animals themselves, they would have brought the whole animal and possibly left the crania at the site of the kill since the ratio of food to weight is lowest for this part of the body. Therefore it seems likely that the inhabitants found already devoured bodies and recovered the heads and brought them to this location to process them.