2500 Year Old Human Footprints Discovered: Insight into the Formation of Fossil Footprints

Countless numbers of footprints made by hundreds of kinds of organisms are preserved in hundreds of individual layers of the geological column.   Millions of these tracks have been identified from just the tiny fraction of the rocks that are exposed at the surface of the Earth.   But how were so many footprints preserved?

Dinosaur footprints on a block of rock that became dislodged from higher above. Two of my boys are serve as size references. Image: Joel Duff

Dinosaur footprints on a block of sandstone near Moab Utah.  There are two obvious prints to my sons right but there are several other less apparent prints on this same block. Two of my sons serve as size references. Image: Joel Duff

In conversations with young earth creationists I have been assured that footprints can’t be preserved as fossils.  At least they can’t be preserved by any process that occurs today.  At an Answers in Genesis conference I attended a speaker mocked the idea that footprints of dinosaurs could be preserved by conventional geological methods pointing out that it would be silly to think that footprints on a beach or even muddy lake edge would last long enough to harden into rock and be preserved.  I know these are over generalizations made to point the audience to a “better” solution to a perceived “footprint problem,”  but even the top geologists, Dr. Snelling, at Answers in Genesis has made similar statements in print.  Here he addresses dinosaur footprints:

Biblical geologists, on the other hand, say it is the conventional geologists who, in fact, face a dilemma. If geologic change takes place slowly, surely footprints made in mud would be obliterated by wind and rain long before the prints were covered by new sediments and hardened into rock.

Snelling is perfectly willing to allow his audience to believe that conventional geology has no explanation for footprints even though he knows that many footprints can and are produced under conditions that we observe today.  He makes what sounds like an obvious point and who would deny that as you walk around you would have no expectation that your footprints will become “fossilized.”  Snelling and other YEC speakers take this common knowledge of their audience and then show long sets of dinosaur tracks and then ask, how then could these have been preserved? The answer, they say, is found in the Noahic global flood in which cataclysmic waves of sediments immediately covered the tracks of these animals preserving them in the rock record.

YECs believe that special circumstances are required to explain footprints but since they believe that all, or nearly all, of them were produced in the span of one year during a flood, the huge number of prints contained in the rocks would require that a large percentage of all of the footprints made by animals running around trying to escape the flood had to be preserved. This is an extraordinarily optimistic scenario.

In the ancient earth scenario only a few footprints of the millions made by a single individual during its lifetime of a population of millions of individuals need be preserved every thousand years or more to account for the observed footprints in rock.  Even if only 0.000000001% of all footprints left by dinosaurs, mammals and humans were preserved, the geological record would have abundant footprints.  And it does!

I have written about preserved footprints many times and discussed how they challenge the flood geology hypotheses of young earth creationists (see: A New Dinosaur Trackway Near Moab, UTPreservation of Behavior – Fossilized Elephant Tracks from the Arabian Peninsula).  That fossilization of footprints can happen without a global catastrophe is obvious once you become familiar with the footprint record.  After all, there are human footprints found in numerous places in the world (see my article: Human Fossil Footprints found below Ice Age Deposits) and all YECs recognize these as having been formed after a global flood.  Hence, they must admit that footprints can be preserved in local contexts.

The preservation of footprints, just like all other fossils is a very rare event and does require a fortuitous set of circumstances to occur. A recent discovery shows just how such a fortuitous circumstance has occurred.   No global flood was required but rather just a local flood of a few acres.

Near Tucson Arizona construction of a new road revealed an archaeological discovery.  Dozens of human footprints were found preserved in what was a field more than 2500 years ago (local story LINK).  The footprints reveal that several adults and a young infant were working a small field.  A dog was also accompanying them. They left their footprints in the thick mud of the field. It appears that soon after leaving the field, it was flooded by a nearby creek which brought in a layer of sediment with a different composition of material.  At that point the field may have been abandoned and more layers of sediments deposited over the years. While the sediments have not been fully converted rock, the process of cementation has already begun producing layers that resists erosion and separate from other layers with different compositions.  Thus they were able to remove the layer above the footprints revealing the field as it was before that very local flood preserved it.

Here we see any example of footprints that were formed in just the right place and time to be preserved by a small-scale event.  This is not unlike what we see in thousands of other locations that footprints are found.   A global flood is not required to produce footprints and the context of footprints frequently excludes such a global event or is at best neutral with respect to extent of the event that caused the preservation of the footprints.

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Cover image credit:  This is a picture of Dinosaur Ridge in Colorado taken by Tom Smith (more info can be found here: http://www.geoexpro.com/articles/2009/03/from-dinosaur-tracks-to-oil)

 

Comments

  1. “cataclysmic waves of sediments immediately covered the tracks of these animals preserving them in the rock record”
    Would cataclysmic waves, even of sediment, not churn up anything whatsoever?

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    • Yes, I would certainly think so but YECs have no other option but to suggest such things since these tracks are found right in the middle of layers of rock that they claim were all laid down in the span of a few days to several months.

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  2. In the most recent young-earth explanations of footprints, I’ve seen them use receding and advancing “tides” of the flood to explain the many successive layers of footprints. I’m not sure that’s even how floods behave, but it’s extremely strained. And correct me if I’m wrong in my interpretation, after 40 days the flood was to have covered everything, even the “all the high mountains under the heavens,” so proposing retreating and recurring floodwaters contradicts the biblical picture.
    How remarkable that the flood sorted even the footprints of animals in faunal succession, not a single modern mammal ending up on a sandbar with dinosaurs, nor a dinosaur with any early amphibians and reptiles.

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  3. Joel, you made the assertion that YECs don’t believe footprints can be fossilized. As evidence you quote Dr. Snelling, but you misrepresented his quote. You suggested that his quote demonstrates that he mislead his audience into believing footprints can’t be fossilized, when in reality he only suggested that they can’t be fossilized by the slow, gradual processes claimed by secular geologists. Then you went on to postulate a catastrophic process (a local flood), ignoring the fact that Snelling’s quote didn’t even mention such a catastrophe, much less preclude it. You are right to say that Snelling knows that catastrophic processes can fossilize footprints, but he clearly doesn’t see it as a viable mechanism for explaining all of the footprints, especially when uniformitarianism’s focus is on the gradual processes. You effectively pulled a bait and switch here with an added straw man argument. You made it seem like Snelling dismisses fossil footprints, and then you demonstrated the opposite by invoking a process that YECs have acknowledged for decades. Moreover, who are the YECs telling you footprints can’t be fossilized? Certainly not trained geologist like Dr. Emil Silvestru who both recognizes them and has postulated a scenario that could explain them in the multiple layers that you referenced. His scenario is actually explained in the very article from which you drew the Snelling quote. And I know you are familiar with it because you summarily dismissed it in one of your previous posts linked to on this one.

    I’m also unsatisfied with a number of other statements and assertions in this post. For example, you stated “the huge number of prints contained in the rocks would require that a large percentage of all of the footprints made by animals running around trying to escape the flood had to be preserved.” Do you have some evidence that you didn’t recount in this post to legitimize such an assertion? For example, do you know how many animals would have been around during the time of the flood? Do you know how many footprints one of those animals would have made (i.e. how many steps they took while fleeing the flood)? Do you know how long into the flood they could have survived to make those footprints? Do you know what percentage of footprints would have been preserved? These are the variables you would have to know in order to conclude if a scenario was optimistic and whether or not it “excludes such a global event.”

    Perhaps most importantly, I was disappointed to see you suggest that Dr. Snelling misleads people, especially with a misrepresented quote. Such a claim shouldn’t be made lightly, and was not warranted here at all.

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    • Hi Trevor, I thought there might be an objection to my introduction and I tried to make it clear that I know that this is not the official position of YEC organizations. With regard to Snelling, I know he knows that it can happen and his article is about a particular set of footprints and not footprints in general but the average person reading that article and reading that sentence will not understand the nuance of his saying “slow, gradual processes” doesn’t exclude footprints being formed in other ways. Really, the general popultion, of which you are not one of them, has been told that conventional geology believe slow, gradual processes causes all the layers of rock and anything that is in them. Snelling should know that his audience will not take this sentence in any other way other than that footprints scientists believe slow gradual processes are necessary. And yes, I have heard Snelling talk several time including on this topic and he did not quality himself and if I asked members of the audience if footprints could be formed they would think they aren’t formed today. The AiG talk I want to the speaker was downright sarcastic about fossils being formed today including footprints. In that case he was a hired speaker with no science background. As such he is a good gauge of how the YEC literature is understood by the average person since it was clear he only read YEC literature to prepare himself. I’m dealing with common perception here not the actual positions of YECs. Yes, I am familiar with Silvestru’s scenario but he has nothing but speculation and he wasn’t there to witness if happening:-) Sorry, couldn’t help myself but you did use the “where you there” one on me in there.

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      • I’ll admit I got a chuckle out of your “he wasn’t there” comment. That is an all too common refrain of the YEC. However the questions that I posed near the end of my comment were not intended to point out that you weren’t there. I was genuinely interested in if you had estimated those variables to flesh out your position. If not, it seems like an empty assertion for you to say the YEC position on fossil footprints in optimistic. I have to say you pretty skillfully ignored most of my critique here.

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  4. I’ll admit I got a chuckle out of your “he wasn’t there” comment. That is an all too common refrain of the YEC. However the questions that I posed near the end of my comment were not intended to point out that you weren’t there. I was genuinely interested in if you had estimated those variables to flesh out your position. If not, it seems like an empty assertion for you to say the YEC position on fossil footprints in optimistic. I have to say you pretty skillfully ignored most of my critique here.

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