In our tour of African stone artifact collections, we now travel to a remote portion of the Sahara Desert in southern Egypt. Stone artifacts are probably abundant in nearly all parts of northern Africa, but they are not easily found everywhere. The shifting sands of this forbidding desert have buried most of the evidence of past occupation. Scientists find themselves seeking locations where the land has undergone little change over time. Rock outcrops and regions of consolidated sediments are therefore highly prized.
More than 80 miles (140 km) from the nearest water body, there is a portion of desert that is ideal for studying stone tool technology. This area is thought to have been stripped down to the bedrock during the hyperaridity of the last glaciation. When the topsoil blew away, any stone artifacts discarded in the soils were dropped onto this bedrock. As the last period of glaciation began to wane more than 11,000 years ago, sands blown in from the surrounding desert covered these artifacts and formed small linear sand ripples. Around 11,000 years ago, the climate changed and greater amounts of moisture cemented the dunes in place, allowing grasses to grown in the shallow depressions between the dunes. During this time the land was able to support nomadic peoples who gathered grains from the wild grasses, hunted game and herded animals. Then the climate changed again, and this area reverted to the extreme desert that we see today. This last bout of climate change occurred about 5500 years ago, just as the Egyptian civilization began to form. As a result, all the stone artifacts, pieces of ostrich eggs, pottery and charcoal that were left in this region have been preserved by the arid environment until the present day. There is no reason to believe that anyone has made use of this land for at least 5000 years.A portion of the desert region surveyed showing the parallel “fossilized” sand ripples.
Researchers scoured about 15 square kilometers of this remote desert. They identified artifacts at over 500 sites within the surveyed area and collected every stone they found—more than 5000. Nearly all of them they attributed to being used as stone tool technology. Why is this not surprising? Because in a sea of sand, there is no other source for these stones. The nearest source of similar stone is more than 15 kilometers away.
As we will see, this isn’t a particularly dense stone artifact site, but it is interesting because these artifacts are not thought to have been deposited over hundreds of thousands of years like the site in Kathu, South Africa from my previous article. Rather, all of these stones are thought to have been deposited over period of just a few thousand years ago starting less than 10,000 years ago. Given the “short” period of tool production, it is not surprising that all of these artifacts here are similar to one another, suggesting the same tool technology was used to create them all during this time.
What can we learn about these early nomads from what they left behind?
Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again
Dr. Mortenson’s rejection of vast numbers of stone artifacts (see Answers in Genesis Struggles to Make Sense of Vast Numbers of Stone Artifacts) is partly based on the argument that we were not there to see these artifacts formed and thus cannot be sure that they are really the product of ancient populations. It is a modification of Ken Ham’s “Were you there?” argument. So how can we know that all these pieces of stone found lying on the surface of Sahara Desert are the products of ancient populations?
I already provided one strong piece of support – that the stone fragments have no obvious source in the immediate vicinity and where thus transported to their current position. That transport can best be explained by groups of people. However, there is more evidence here of the anthropological origin of these stone fragments.
Because every stone that was observed was collected and their positions recorded, some very clever though difficult work was possible. One scientist, Dr. Angela Close, spent countless hours poring over the 5000 artifacts and finding pieces of stone that fit together. Eventually she discovered multiple sets of stone fragments that could be refit to form the original block of stone that were used to make tools. By examining the location of where the pieces were found she could trace the steps of the individual or group as they chipped off pieces from a large block to use on one ripple and then moved hundreds of meters to another depression and then chipped off a few more pieces to use there. By putting the ordinal source rock back together again, she had evidence of the direction that people traveled and how they utilized stone at this time.
It is true that we were not there and we have no written record that people wandered in this part of the world and made stone tools, but the tools themselves are a record of their activity. The organized distribution of artifacts argues strongly against the interpretation that these stone fragments are simply the result of random process of desert formation. There is clear evidence of “design” in the distribution and strike patterns on the stones.
These stones are artifacts of real people living in real-time and thus demand that we find a place and time for them to have lived. This is the challenge of Stone Age artifacts that anyone who proposes compressing the chronology of human into less than 4000 years.
How many artifacts are here?
We already noted that over 5000 stone artifacts were found in the 15 square kilometer area surveyed. This is not an especially impressive number considering the other sites we have examined (Trillions of Stone Artifacts Redux and Billions of Stone Artifacts: Witness to Ancient Sahara Occupation). This is an average of just 333 artifacts per square kilometer. The same density over all of Egypt would result in just 333 million total artifacts, far fewer than the hundreds of billions to several trillion derived from estimates made from other locations.
But remember this is only what is observed on the surface. While the surface here is not necessarily changing quickly there is still some sand and some artifacts were certainly buried just under the surface and so this is the minimum number. Also consider that there are complete stone blades found here with no associated “fitted” stone fragments, suggesting that most tools in use would have been carried to this location and only those “lost” in use are left for us to find. These tools would have been manufactured elsewhere. If they were produced elsewhere, then the artifacts of their production would not be found here but would be found elsewhere and likely in very high concentration around the site of their origin.
In summary, the remote location far from water bodies, the fact that this land was only inhabitable for a short time, and the fact that all tools had to be carried there from a long distance—all point to this location as one of relatively low usage. So the number of artifacts here represent a low value for density.
Low density site for artifacts but still a big problem for Young Earth Creationism (YEC)
Stone artifacts present so many serious challenges to the young earth creationist’s interpretation of global history that it is hard to know where to begin.
But let’s first outline the general YEC view of human history. Answers in Genesis has been promoting a revised chronology of Egyptian history that compresses all of the Dynasties into a period beginning no earlier than 4188 years ago. This is almost 1000 years later than most secular estimates, but since they believe there was a global flood some 4500 years ago and that people did not disperse across the Earth until after the incident at the Tower of Babel, which they place around 4250 years ago, they must push Egyptian civilization closer to the present.
What did the topography of Egypt look like during the first Egyptian dynasty? There is a good body of evidence that it looked much as it does today. There is a very ancient mural depicting the Nile Valley with desert surrounding it. There is no evidence in any of the writing of the Egyptians that there was significant vegetation outside of the Nile River valley. The entire culture was based on the rising and falling of the Nile River, not the ability to gain resources from the land outside of the valley. Hence, we have every reason to believe that the climatic conditions that we see today have been nearly the same over at least the last 4000 years, and probably the last 5500 years.
So when did nomads make a living on the grasses and prey of the landscape hundreds of miles from the Nile River? Not since the origins of the Egyptian civilization!
The stone artifacts found in the desert beyond the Nile represent a time when people lived off the land prior to the climactic changes that resulted in the topographical and ecological characteristics of the Egyptian civilizations. On the secular timescale, this occurred more than 5000 years ago.
But for YECS, this had to have happened before 4188 years ago but after 4250 years ago. Why? Because, in their view, people didn’t even arrive in Egypt until after 4250 years ago and so could not have produced stone artifacts before this time.
Therefore, Answers in Genesis has to squeeze in the production of 333 million stone artifacts in this part of the world into just 62 years. And remember, this is one of the least dense stone artifact sites.
That’s not all folks…
But I have saved the biggest problem for last. Even if Dr. Mortenson and Answers in Genesis simply wishes to say that there could be enough people living here for 60 or more years to produce all the artifacts that are present, that would not solve their artifact problem. Because these are not the only artifacts found in this region.
I said that the artifacts on the surface all represent the activity of peoples using this land after the last Ice Age. But there are other stone artifacts that lie under the sand dunes on top of the bedrock. Where did those come from? How did they get there in the YEC chronology?
This area has seen many wet and dry periods over hundreds of thousands of years, and stone artifacts have been dropped there long ago and those artifacts have eroded out onto the surface, then were later buried by desert sands. It is only the last set of artifacts, representing the most recent human use of this land, that has been preserved on the surface.
How does the young-earth creationist explain the presence of artifacts buried underneath the most recent set of artifacts? I really have no idea!
You see, all of these artifacts sit on top of what YECs believe are global flood rocks, and so these artifacts must represent the activity of populations that lived there after the flood. But how could people have migrated to this location before the hardened sand ripples were formed? For these artifacts to have been created, this area had to be a desert like it is today, which would render it un-inhabitable.
So these artifacts represent a time before the desert existed, but then the area became a desert and the ripples formed and then it became wet again and that allowed people to return and then the area became forbidding desert again.
For YECs, all of this had to occur in less than 100 years.
And did I mention that the artifacts found buried under the sand are clearly the result of a different stone tool technology, and so they represent the products of a completely different people group?
It is difficult enough to explain the artifacts on the surface in the hyper-condensed chronology of creationism, but to then have to add in multiple rounds of climate change and different populations inhabiting this location negates the YEC hypothesis of a global flood 4500 years ago.
YECs are fond of claiming that the evidence points to a young Earth. But time after time the simplest explanation for the observations we make of the world is that great time is required. The number and distribution of stone artifacts in the sands of the Sahara can be easily accommodated by a much longer chronology than YEC demands.
Next up we will look even closer at Dr. Mortenson’s contention that a large number of stone artifacts are nothing but the result of the random forces rather than intelligent action.
Close, A. E. (1990). Living on the edge: Neolithic herders in the eastern Sahara. Antiquity 64: 79-96.
Close, A. E. (1992). “Holocene occupation in the eastern Sahara,” in New Light on the Northeast African past. Edited by F. Clees and R. Kuper, pp. 155-183. Koln: Heinrich-Rarth-Institut.
Close, A. E. (1996). Carry that weight: The use and transportation of stone tools. Current Anthropology, 545-553.