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?
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, UT; Preservation 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.
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)