The pace of discovery of ancient human activities continues unabated. That alone should tell us that that there is much yet to discover and learn. The latest revelation come from deep—more than 1000 feet—inside a French cave. In the blackness of a large opening there are peculiar “structures” constructed from fragments of stalagmites. Found many years ago recent research has found that these structures are much older than previously believed.
Of the many popular reports on this discovery I found this article in The Atlantic to be quite informative and included great pictures for those that don’t have access to the original research article (see link at the end).
Discovered in 1990, initial radiocarbon dating of burnt bones suggested a minimum age of 47,000 years. That is a long time ago and therefore of great interest to anthropologists. Nonetheless work on the cave continued very slowly. A 47,000 year old age is at the extreme end for which radiocarbon (C14) analyeses can be used. Therefore additional dating techniques needed to be brought to bear on the stalagmites if a more accurate age were to be established. Those new analyses have provided a more precise date for the cave structure and revealed these structures in a very difficult to access cave system is far older and therefore intrinsically more interesting than originally thought.
Composed of 4000 pounds of intentionally broken stalagmite tips and arranged in a single chamber deep in this cave system, direct radiometric dating of the stalagmites themselves provided an age of 176,000 years making this the oldest known intentionally fabricated structure.
What were the circular structures used for? It is hard to say but it appears that the rings of stalagmites themselves were lit on fire rather than fire occurring in the center of the rings suggesting something other than a central cooking fire. To date, no further evidence of habitation in the cave, including much closer to the entrance, has been found. In France and Spain many caves exhibit elaborate wall art but so far none has been bound here. What has been found are numerous remains of extinct animals including bear tracks near the entrance which collapsed long ago sealing off this cave until 1990 when it was discovered and re-opened. The lack of cave art and the presence of extinct animals are consistent with the radiometric dating pointing to the great antiquity of the structures in this cave.
Personally, I find these structures very perplexing. I find it hard to imagine why anyone would carry fire more than 1000 feet to get to an isolated chamber and then expend such an effort to break and move almost 400 stalagmites into various circular structures. It is unclear whether anyone lived in this chamber but regardless, the stalagmites have clearly experienced fire and it must have taken considerable effort to construct the rings. The whole idea of living in a cave hardly seems like an appealing life no matter how brief the time spent. How fun could it be to be sitting in a cave with a fire constantly going? Is it just me or does anyone else wonder what happens to the smoke and how there is enough oxygen to maintain a fire – and more importantly for people to breath? Certainly, breathing that much smoke couldn’t have been good for anyone’s health.
No human bones, stone artifacts or artworks have been found in the cave. Based on the age of the structures the assumption is that the structures were built by Neanderthals. But who made the structures and why is not what I think is the most challenging question that these structures pose. The structures are the clearly the result of intelligent, purposeful action and if the dating of the structures is correct then it implies some level of cultural intelligence existed long ago.
Human origins is a hot topic in the church today. When and where was humanity created? What does it mean to be created in the “image of God?” How can biblical chronology accommodate the evidence of fossil “humans” be interpreted?
Neanderthals, in particular have created interpretative challenges for Christians ever since their discovery in the 19th century. I wrote about some of the different responses to them previously: Christian Responses to the Physical and Spiritual Status of Neanderthals. In a nutshell, the responses range from treating Neanderthals as separately created non-image-bearing creatures (e.g. Reasons to Believe – Old Earth Creationism) to their being completely human and descendants of Noah’s family (Young Earth Creationism) to accepting them as being a separate species but related by common ancestor and may or may-not be image-bearing individuals (BioLogos – Evolutionary Creation).
How might this new evidence of designed structures built in the deep recesses of a cave impact the debate about the physical and spiritual status of Neanderthals? I think it provides yet another big problem to solve for the young-earth understanding of Neanderthals. The discovery has less impact on other viewpoints but I won’t say that these structures are easy to interpret by any view of origins.
Before addressing the young-earth difficulties let us look at one old-earth approach. Old earth creationists’ Dr. Hugh Ross and Dr. Fuzale Rana, in particular, have consistently argued that Neanderthals are unrelated to humans. I expect they will likely point out that there is no definitive evidence that connects these structures to Neanderthals and they may insist, instead, that modern humans built them. They believe that Adam and Eve lived 150 to 200 thousand years ago and so this structure can still be fit within their chronology. However, if definitive evidence, such as bones and stone artifacts, is found in the cave that connect these structures to Neanderthals, then new questions about their views of the spiritual status of Neanderthals will be raised.
No room in the young-earth chronology for these structures
The dates for the structures were derived by measuring uranium in cross-sections of multiple stalagmites. When the stalagmites were vertical they added new layers of calcite in concentric rings but then they were broken off and laid down horizontally. At that point new minerals began to be deposited on the broken pieces building new rings but these rings were built at or close-to right angles with respect to the original growth rings. Cross sections reveal very clearly the boundary between these vertical and horizontal layers of calcite. It is the boundary between those different layers that was dated along with other portions of the stalagmites on either side which represent the time before and after the stalagmites were broken.
The ancient dates given to these structures stand in opposition to young-earth chronology but to me the most significant new findings reported were not the specific dates—176,000 years—but rather the descriptions of the stalagmites and the cave itself.
Let’s think about what these stalagmites are telling us about the history of the cave in general. Here is probably chronology without any specific dates:
- Water dissolved limestone rock to form caverns.
- Large stalagmites and stalactites formed in the cave system.
- The cave became accessible—probably the cutting down of the nearby river into the valley where the cave entrance now finds itself up on the valley wall.
- Animals and people accessed the cave over some period of time.
- The structures were constructed from almost 400 pieces of stalagmites.
- The cave entrance collapsed cutting off all further access to the cave by people and animals.
- Stalagmite growth continued to the present day
- Cave was discovered and the entrance uncovered in 1990 allowing the first access to the cave since it was blocked off.
Regardless of the 176,000 year date for the structures this series of historical events is a problem for young-earth chronology. Their historical narrative of this cave must compress all of these developments into the space of just 4350 years and steps 1 to 5 into just a few hundred years.
For young-earth advocates, the cave could not form in limestone until those layers had formed during Noah’s Flood and so the cave itself has a post-flood origin. Stalagmite growth, such as that found in this cave, is not a rapid process no matter what the YEC literature tries to suggest. It would take time—considerable amounts of it—to produce the formations found in the cave prior to it being inhabited by Neanderthals. And then it would have taken time for the large amount of calcite that is layered over the structures to form after the structures were abandoned and the cave entrance collapsed.
In the YEC chronology of human history, Neanderthals were descendants of Noah’s family that migrated from Babel 100 years after the flood and took up residence in caves in Europe during the single Ice Age that reached its apex just 200 years after Noah’s flood. Then they went extinct for reasons unknown. So a cave like this would have been used by Neanderthals between 100 and a maximum of 300 years after Noah’s flood. That constrains the amount of time for the cave to have formed including all of the stalagmites used to construct the structures.
The build up of new calcite on the cave structure and the burned bones is much less than the original thickness of the stalagmites used to produce the structure and much thicker layers of calcite that underlay the structure itself. In other words, much less cave mineral has formed after the structures were built than before. This is the opposite of what the YEC chronology would expect. Therefore, to compress the chronology of this cave into less than 4350 years requires appealing to unknown processes in which cave formation occurred several order of magnitude faster in the past than it is observed in the present.
It is my observation that YECs like to say that the evidence points to a young earth not an old earth. When pushed they will usually add the caveat that the evidence points to a young earth when examined with the right presuppositions. In other words, if you know the world is young then the evidence can be interpreted correctly to point to a young earth.
The YEC should not be surprised that this is met with incredulity. For the secular scientists who does not “know” that the world really is only 6000 years old what about this cave would point them in that direction? Ken Ham will be quick to point out that those that deny the biblical evidence are working against God and seeking to deny Him. But what person that studies caves is really looking at those stalagmites and thinking “these sure look recent but I need to find a way to interpret them as being very old so that it contradicts the Bible?” Nothing about the cave would lead anyone to conclude the contents are very young.
The basic chronology that I outlined above are not founded on an anti-biblical approach but rather common sense interpretations based on the evidence. Common grace allows scientists to draw reasonable conclusions from their data. We should not expect that they would find it necessary push the data through a young earth interpretive framework when it is self-evident that framework does not provide a coherent explanation for what we observe in the world around us.
Jaubert et al. 2016. Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France. Nature doi:10.1038/nature18291.