Stalagmite Structures in an Ancient Cave Contradict the Young-Earth Narrative

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.

Figure from the NATURE publication (see refs) showing the location of the cavern that holds the structures.

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.

I close up on some of the broken stalagmites showing the imact of fire on them. They are all covered by a new coat of calcite and you can see the white stalagtite which has grown since the structure was abandoned. Image: Michel SOULIER – SSAC
A close-up on some of the broken stalagmites showing the impact of fire on them. They are all covered by a new coat of calcite and you can see the white stalagmite which has grown on top of the pile since the structure was abandoned. Image: Michel SOULIER – SSAC

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:

  1. Water dissolved limestone rock to form caverns.
  2. Large stalagmites and stalactites formed in the cave system.
  3. 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.
  4. Animals and people accessed the cave over some period of time.
  5. The structures were constructed from almost 400 pieces of stalagmites.
  6. The cave entrance collapsed cutting off all further access to the cave by people and animals.
  7. Stalagmite growth continued to the present day
  8. 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 FranceNature doi:10.1038/nature18291.

15 thoughts on “Stalagmite Structures in an Ancient Cave Contradict the Young-Earth Narrative

  1. I can tell you why a fire may be 1000 feet from the entrance. It’s really simple, it is the first place the smoke didn’t build up and smoke out the Neanderthals or humans. I have some experience in this as I spent the night in a cave and you had to go down a ways so the smoke would go up and away from you. There is also the issue of which way is the wind blowing? If it is blowing towards the cave entrance you may not be able to have a fire except just outside the cave. I have a physicist friend and he has serious doubts about radiometric dating past C-14’s 50,000 years and the million year mark of the argon or fission track and other radiometric methods. I even had somebody at Reasons To Believe admit as much. Without annual varves or coral rings it isn’t an exact art for that time period. Now maybe you know of some more methods I haven’t researched. I wouldn’t have an issue with it being over 50,000 year, but dating it at 176,000 may be off from what I have read, but I don’t know everything and am just taking the word of other experts. I’m more informed in the geology field than I am about radiometric dating methods and I’m way overeducated for my station in life.LOL

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    1. The dating method (U-Th disequilibrium) is extremely precise for this time interval, so there’s little reason to distrust the age. Radiocarbon ages only suggest “greater than 50 kyrs”, which is consistent with dating of the stalags themselves.

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  2. This is a good article but not necessarily one that will be easily understood by a person with limited geology background. As a lifelong professional geologist myself that believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible, I can affirm that the Earth appears much older than 6000 years. Too many converging lines of evidence to say otherwise. Christians need to approach this subject not by faulting the science but by examining ways the Earth could artificially appear old, or perhaps really be old, and that the hermeneutic approach to Genesis needs revisiting. See my book titled Deep Time in Genesis.


  3. Allow me to be a pedant for a moment. “Irregardless” is not a word. I think what you want is “regardless.” /pedantry off.


  4. Steve – I found the first chapters of your book on the Net. Absolute good for readers. The posting quits where you get into Day/Age. Will have to see if B&N have it here in Iowa. The long-age position assumes that something has to be old because – by all means of testing (1 Thes. 5:21) – it looks old. I’d like your opinion on my thinking from Hebrews 11:3, that coal and oil can’t be from vegetation and algae SEEN everywhere OEC or YEC, and now WHAT WE SEE today. Thus “ex nihilo.” On Hebrews 11:3, what OTHER or better specific use did God want us to get out of it?

    Your objective rejection of ICR/AiG YEC cosmology properly stresses observation. Joel could do this in Spearfish on his trip. Look for any fresh chunks of gypsum exposed by construction digging – nice for kids’ sculpting projects. Anyone can park at the head of the middle freeway exit into town, and see over the fence (uphill) a thick bank of eroded gypsum (not a Flood deposit). Snake watch. The outstanding thin sandstone layers farther in are ripple-marked, parted by thin clay (ash?) where some creature made “night crawler” tracks up and over the ripples at different levels. Deep Time in real time – or – part of Creation 7700 BC, the work of a God who ONLY is unchanging.

    Southern Wisconsin was always my “run” in life. Today, 72, retired, I drove 650 miles switching new but different color Toyotas from Cedar Rapids to Kansas City and back. Other times I make it to Milwaukee and points south – so if you wanted, I could leave here of an evening, visit overnight at your place, and still get the trade done to get home the next day. Joel could give you my Hotmail address. My wife could send a picture of a Deep Time rigid-point starburst sea urchin 5″ point to point that I found in local quarry-blasted limestone. Looking up your book, the Net was there with Mortenson’s 2008/2016 “‘Deep Time’ and the Church’s Compromise: Historical Background,” part of a festschrift for John Whitcomb – and Andrew Kulikovsky’s CMI review of the book, “Coming to Grips with Genesis.” Terry’s writing is LONG, but valuable for covering so many YEC concerns.

    Working back through Ken Ham’s blog, I’ve just found AiG’s major CPT claim at April 15, 2014, But especially note his excitement about their Allosaurus exhibit (April 19 & May 16, 2014). They KNOW that most Allosaurs are a scattered litter of fragments. HOW does that equate with a “fleeing” dino “swept away and rapidly buried”? Hebrews 11:3 – live dinosaurs never seen in OEC or YEC time. Your book, and Joel’s blog are invaluable for talking to anybody willing to question YECism. GLL

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  5. Yesterday I should have tried to stay more on topic. Early on, the YEC (Delugian) story was that Earth’s caves were quickly done by end-Flood water pressure finding its way out. But Buckland’s careful logic 190 years ago (hippos north of London) would say otherwise – so why must YECs keep on doing their thing? Trusting C-14 verification at Suigetsu, there’s no need to ask if Neandertals were accountable to God, if every aspect of their existence was part of God’s plan for showing a holy humanity what death looked like. (Sorry to keep making the point.) Secularists agree that Virtual History is 100% beyond refutation – just silly. But what should we do with God’s point that his ways and thoughts aren’t ours? So “God would never…” doesn’t work. If you want “keep it simple,” there’s Ken’s blog at April 5-6, 2014, his ad for “Meet the Real Noah.” Modern, high forehead. But when you Search: snelling matthews cavemen, the AiG Genesis patriarchs were Homo erectus. GLL


  6. In fact I’ve now read this blog post more closely, along with the CREV YEC one (and also Jimpithecus). There is literally no CREV reasoned argument that needs a refutation, merely a one sentence opening assertion (and the usual thing about neanderthals being quite intelligent so they must have been fully human).


  7. I’m fairly new to this discussion. I read this post and also the CREV post. What is the standard scientific (anthropologic?) explanation for the lack of advancement during the 170,000 years if Neanderthals had fire, cultural intelligence, and purpose already at that point? If they aren’t human, they were around with humans over 100,000 years later, but didn’t advance in any significant way during that time, like significant improvement in cooking, crafting, or travel?


    1. My guess is that it would be for the same reason that it took Homo Sapiens so long to develop “civilization” as we think of it. Consider: in a small tribe of hunter-gatherers, who’s more likely to live long enough to reproduce? The one who goes hunting once or twice a week and brings home a large deer each time, or the one who painstakingly plants and tends crops and livestock, *not* eating them immediately? Until a certain critical mass of people is reached, it’s very unlikely that such behaviors will develop. There are still uncontacted tribes today that live the same way. They simply have never had selective pressure upon them which would lead to more “advanced” behavior.


  8. I hate to rain on everybody’s parade but the young earth creationists have dispensed with conventional radiometric dating and will simply argue that radiometric dating methods are flawed. They will point to ONE study that was done by Steve Austin on Mount St. Helens who claimed that K/Ar dates that the lab brought back from dacite at the site were wrong and therefore, radiometric dating is wrong. That the study was completely discredited is of no consequence to them. They will stick to it like, as Andrew Hayward once said “grim death.”


    1. Oh, yes, I expect them to respond that the dates don’t mean anything. That is why I generally don’t argue from radiometric dating. What I did here was try to show that that the dates are consistent with what is obvious, that there are many events that have to have occurred over time to produce this cave and the structure inside.

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