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.
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.
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, UT; Preservation 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.
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.