A Fossil Paradox? Footprints are Rarely Preserved in Stone and yet are very Common

Billions of footprints are preserved in the rock record.  While bones get all the attention, fossil footprints likely outnumber bones. How can we make sense of this observation?  Surely, preserving a bone must be far more likely than preserving a footprint?

I have written about how paleontologists use information from footprints and bones to reconstruct past environments and I have also written about individual dinosaur track-ways (Walking the Footprints of Giants).  Today, and in the follow-up post, I want to take a closer look at fossil footprints and ask the following questions:  1) Should we expect to find billions of preserved footprints in the fossil record? and 2) does conventional geology or Flood geology (young-earth creationism) provide a better framework for understanding footprint formation and distribution?

Footprint preservation happens today!

I recently spent time in Death Valley National Park.  Early one morning walking among sand dunes below sea level my father noticed several bootprints in hardened ground swept clean of sand by recent high winds.  Although we were not present when these prints were created it is reasonable to infer that these were made by a shoe much like the one I am wearing in the picture pressing into wet soil.

A footprint preserved in hardened sand below sea level in Death Valley National Park. My shoe for scale. Photo: Joel Duff

But when was this bootprint created?  Days, weeks, months or years ago? It hadn’t rained here in a couple of weeks so these prints were at least that old.  Even if it had rained, this ground was very hard and the prints could well have survived multiple small rain events.  Furthermore, small sand dunes in this area are always moving around. These prints were probably covered in the sand dune just a few yards away not long ago. It is possible that the prints had been covered by a dune for months or years before only recently being re-exposed.

Several footprints (blue circles) preserved in hardened fine sand. The sand dunes in the upper portion of this photo are moving away from the footsteps and therefore were likely covering them days or weeks before. Photo: Joel Duff

Regardless of their exact age, the point is that footprints can be preserved over long periods of time.   The bottom of Death Valley is accumulating sand and sediments from the surrounding mountains.  There are surely preserved footprints of Native Americans and tourists who have visited this region for thousands of years lying under layers of sand and other sediments.  Sand may blow over a set of hardened tracks or a large flash flood may bring a layer of mud and stones over a trackway.  Over time these preserved tracks will become more deeply buried and eventually the sediments in those layers will become cemented together to form sandstones and conglomerates.  In the future, if the region if uplifted and that rock eroded, the footprints will appear on the surface just as we observed millions of them preserved in rocks today.

Rare events do not mean their outcomes are uncommon

That sounds a bit weird doesn’t it?  How can something be common and yet be exceedingly rare?   Because we are talking about two different things.  The chances that any single footprint made by a person will be preserved for thousands or millions of years is vanishingly small.   But even if only 1 out of every trillion footprints made is preserved, preserved footprints should be very common. And they are!

We could ask ourselves another question: What is the chance that no footprints would ever be preserved.  The answer is that there is less of chance that none are preserved and any single print is preserved.  Why, because quintillions of footprints have been created over time.    Think of it as being like a lottery. What are the chances that an individual wins the lottery:  very small.  But what are the chances that anyone wins the lottery even though the chance for each individual in very small?  Very high!

You have probably created hundreds of thousands of footprints in sand and mud in your lifetime. The chances that even one of them will still exist 1000 years from now is near zero percent.  But there are 7 billion people on earth each of which is producing hundreds of thousands of footprints. What are the chances that some footprints of any of them will survive 1000 years:  If not 100% it is something very close to it.

Young-earth creationists have a footprint problem

There are billions of footprints in the geological column.  But according to young earth creationists, that majority of the geological column was formed over just a few months only 4350 years ago.  Hence, all the footprints had to have been formed nearly simultaneously during a global chaotic event in which thousands of feet of sediment were being deposited in a short period of time. Footprints in this geological record are a serious challenge to this alternative geological model of earth history.

Despite this challenge, young earth creationists (YECs) have not only not been willing to say this is a problem for their model but have sought to turn the tables and claim it is the conventional geologists that have a problem.

At an Answers in Genesis conference I attended a speaker mocked the idea that footprints of dinosaurs could be preserved by any process that occurs today, pointing out that it would be silly to think that footprints on a beach or even a muddy lake edge would last long enough to harden into rock and be preserved.  I understand these are over-generalizations made as a rhetorical tool to point the audience to a “better” solution to a falsely created “footprint problem,” but even the top YEC 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.

He further asks:

How can today’s slow-and-gradual geologic processes over millions of years explain the preservation of delicate impressions in mud before they are washed away? Does the Flood provide a better explanation?

Dr. Snelling’s answer to the last question is yes but only because he has intentionally created a false dichotomy for his audience. In addition to painting a false picture of how what geologists believe about the principle of uniformitarianism, he portrays the conventional geological understanding as unable to explain the occurrence of footprints and thus if he can provide an explanation for any footprints at all it must be better.

As shocking as it might seem, Dr. Snelling doesn’t appear to be familiar with statistics or the many ways that footprints can form.  In a follow-up to this article we will examine the statistical likelihood of dinosaur footprints being preserved over millions of years versus all at one time in a global flood.  But just notice for now that Dr. Snelling denies observational evidence we have before us right now in the present.  Footprints are being preserved today in many different environments and the mechanisms for their preservation are known and very reasonable.  I would point you to a case dozens of human footprints found recently which are 1250 year old.

YECs claim – and presumably 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 unlikely scenario.

Not a paradox:  Footprints can be common even if they are rarely formed

From an ancient earth perspective only a few footprints of the multitude of individuals during the lifetime of a population of millions of individuals need be preserved every thousand years or more to account for the observed footprints in the geological record.  Even if only 0.000000001% of all footprints left by dinosaurs, mammals and humans were preserved, the geological record would be filled with footprints.  And it is!

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).  The fact 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 be aware that footprints can be preserved in local contexts rather than during singularly unique global flood.

Next we will look more closely at dinosaur footprints and ask which model of Earth’s history better predicts the preserved footprints we observe today.

I took this picture of mudcracks in Death Valley. This hardened mud felt like walking on cement. These will persist for months and could be filled in with fine dust and eventually a flash flood will cover them with a new layer of mud next winter. Mudcracks pose the same problems to flood geology that fossil footprints do. Photo: Joel Duff, April 2017.

PS.  My collection of photography from Death Valley can be found at my photography site: http://beechnutphotography.com.
Featured image for the post is my father standing at Zabriski Point overlooking Death Valley.

Comments

  1. Excellent article. I still cannot grasp how YECs are able to deny the overwhelming evidence for such things.
    How far can such obvious indoctrination carry the argument I wonder?

    Like

    • I used to be YEC. It is a kind of cognitive disconnect. The person will not accept any evidence that is against their faith system and what they have been taught. Look at the Islamic faith and the extremely small evidence for it’s foundation versus the Bible and the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.
      It is a chasm, but many of the Puritans that I have read didn’t think the age of the Earth was a big deal. Between the geology and my reading of the way the Puritans interpreted the Bible I decided that as far as the Bible was to be looked at or considered is a whole lot different than now. I do not mean many Puritans didn’t see YEC as a proper view, but they would have also looked at the evidence. Having read Nahmides from the 13th century I can see many different ways of interpretations of the first chapter of the Beginnings.

      Liked by 1 person

      • How did you handle the whole thing of
        dinosaurs co-existing with humans?

        Like

        • datadroid says:

          I can’t speak for Jim, but for my part, I kept hoping and hoping that someone would find that one fossil that had clear evidence of dinosaur and human coexistence. But it never happened, and at some point, I realized it never would.

          Liked by 1 person

        • I simply believed the original “The Genesis Flood” by H. Morrison and the pictures of so called human footprints in the book with dinosaur footprints. It’s pretty convincing if you haven’t heard it’s not true.
          Seeing the Grand Canyon and the Grand Staircase that begins there and goes up into Utah with desert laid down sandstones with hardly a fossil in them changed my mind. You have fossils below the sandstone and above them as well, if it was laid down by water why no fossils? The sheer amount of fossils in the world are proof enough that they were not put there in one flood simply because this planet couldn’t support life in that amount. I forget the exact number, but it’s like over several feet for every square meter of the planet. As a matter of fact there are single fossil beds that could cover the whole planet like the fossil beds of Kansas of marine organisms, they had to be laid down over, at the shortest, thousands of years for the amount that is there. A single worldwide flood of a year’s duration could not have laid down all the fossils and sedimentary layers above and below them. Especially above them.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Some people love conspiracy theories because it gives them esoteric knowledge about how the world “really” works. I wonder if some people are attracted to YEC because it is the ultimate conspiracy theory – virtually everything you can know about science and natural history is wrong because the truth has been hidden by a conspiracy of scientists! But you, because you are really “saved,” have been granted special knowledge about how the world works. You even have an alternative “science” that explains all of the facts that the conspiracy does not want you to know.

      Liked by 1 person

      • As adults, maybe, but as kids they are simply indoctrinated.

        Like

      • Once could also say that it is simply a form of modern gnosticism.

        Like

      • I grew up listening to Kent Hovind, and it took me a while but I’ve finally had to admit to myself that he was basically just a religious conspiracy theorist. But that drew me in as a child/teen, the idea that the whole world was “wrong” and we Christians who truly believed in God’s Word had “inside information” that everyone else missed out on (which really did seem biblical for other topics anyway). I really hate being wrong, and that “conspiracy theorist” view almost makes the Bible like some kind of code book that can keep you from ever being wrong if you read it the right way. But I was wrong. And as long as God’s still right, then I’m okay with being wrong (Romans 3:4).

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  2. I was raised YEC, but have since had the scales removed from eyes, so to speak. I know how difficult it was for me to accept the evidence for evolution, but does anyone have any good pointers of trying to convince others? It really does sadden me that so many people go through life without a proper appreciation for the natural world.

    Like

    • datadroid says:

      It’s a thorny issue, that’s for sure. I wish there were a simple set of steps one could take to reliably disabuse people of YEC ideas. Unfortunately, it’s deeply ingrained into many aspects of the believer’s worldview. There’s an intricate web of “truths” that all interconnect and “require” them to continue to believe as they believe.

      Liked by 1 person

      • So what particular evidence changed your mind?

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        • datadroid says:

          Well, viewing the Sideling Hill roadcut (featured on this blog) as a kid convinced me that flood geology was bunk. After that, it was the slow steady accumulation of evidence that was always and only consistent with an ancient earth and evolved life that did it for me. There was no one piece of evidence per se.

          Like

        • I don’t think I can point to any particular piece of evidence, but looking at the arguments I saw how dishonest creationists and ID proponents could be (albeit not necessarily intentionally). The trust was broken and the house of cards fell from there. I know the starlight problem was a big problem to me, but that’s more to do with big bang cosmology than biological evolution.

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        • In my case, though I was never a young-earth creationist (more of an old-earth), it was an article in American Scientist about the evolution of spiders in the Hawaiian islands, of all things, that made me realize evolution was real. It just made so much sense how evolution explained all the changes that happened in the spiders as the archipelago was formed one island at a time.

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  3. I applaud those of you who grew up in a YEC church, then learned enough about the world to reject YEC, but it ultimately did not destroy your faith. I imagine all of you struggled with various questions. I lucked out. The church I grew up in was moderate and did not teach YEC. My father took me to cool places like science/natural history museums and planetariums. I did not even know such a thing as YEC existed until I was almost an adult. When I hear about a church taking its children on a field trip to something like Ken Ham’s “creation science” museum it makes me sad and a bit angry. Those children will either grow up to have an unnecessary crisis of faith or else they will grow up insecure and feel like they have to somehow defend the Bible every time there is a scientific discovery.

    Like

    • Similar story for myself. I rarely recall ever hearing YEC from the pulpit. My Christian elementary school made some YEC noises, but even by then, my fascination with astronomy pretty much had me convinced that the Genesis narrative was something other than ‘literal’. I too had no idea of the YEC narrative that some hold until about 10 years ago when I became active on some Christian fora.

      Like

      • Astronomy was and is a big thing for me, also. Until some years ago, browsing different places on the Web, I did not realize how YEC is for some people a very central thing. They are taught that the Gospel cannot be true unless the 6,000 year timeline is also true.

        Like

        • To be fair, their reasons are more complex than just keeping to a timeline. There are issues about death before the fall and how to keep the Bible as the authority if you don’t read everything in a literalist way. These are important questions but YEC I think leads to a dead end. It closes the Bible more than it opens it.

          Like

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