You can learn a lot from a series of unfortunate events. Collapsed caves can leave entry holes on the surface that become hazards to local fauna. The image below is from inside a famous natural pitfall trap in Wyoming. The surface above is rather flat and prey running from a predator sometimes fall into this hole or prey smelling the decaying remains of dead accident victims may lean over too far for a closer look and fall in themselves. Over years, decades, and even tens of thousands of years, remains of animals and sediments in the trap accumulate preserving a chronology of historical events that we can read today.
Such is the case of a natural pitfall trap in Spain. However, this one has a twist. This trap is so old that it has become completely filled with sediments and bones. People living in the area had no idea there has been a large pit there at all because it was filled prior to modern humans occupying the region.
But some curious scientist found a cluster of fossils, which, upon further examination, they came to realize were the remains of an ancient natural pitfall trap. Since its discovery, field work at the site for more than 10 years has yielded more than 1800 fossil bones from at least 18 species of extinct large animals.
The site represents one of the best sites for fossil carnivores in Europe because of the unique circumstances under which it is thought to have formed. Similar to my previous post on “fossil” caves in South Africa (The frequently overlooked geological context of hominid fossils) this site represents what was a extinct sinkhole of sorts. Similar pits that were simply a hidden hole that caused animals to accidentally fall in the pit are expected to contain the bones of large numbers of herbivores rather than carnivores. But this ancient pit had a large number of carnivores. Why? It seems that this pit had walls that were enticing to carnivores who thought they could get into the pit and get out with the probable reward of water and a meal. However, once in the pit they soon discovered that the walls could not be scaled thus sealing their fates.
Over time continual deposition of new sediment and unfortunate victims of falls and unwise predators resulted in filling of a pit that had started out at least 30 feet deep. Once filled with debris the contents of the pit were preserved through various forms of fossilization.
Scientist have been excavating the pit by digging their own pit into the ancient pit sediments, revealing the past history of this site. The figure to the right shows a likely history of this pit. Thus far thousands of bones belonging to at least 18 different large species of mammals have been found in addition to many remains of smaller animals. All of the remains of mammals found thus far are of species that are extinct today.
Among the remains there is an ancient horse species that stood at most four feet tall, several extinct rhinoceros species, a bear dog which was a bear sized animal that looked like a dog but also had bear-like features and was likely neither a bear nor a dog, several large cat species, an ancient hyena species and multiple other hoofed animals.
Context is key for interpretation the history of this site: A creationist’ challenge
I probably sound like a broken record at this point but context is critical when asking how a location like this fits into the young earth creationist’ (YEC) viewpoint. I expect that many YECs when told of these thousands of bones they will not be told about where the bones are found and how they may have been preserved. They may just believe that these were animals swept up in a large flood.
For the typical YEC follower who does not have a working knowledge of geological processes this is understandable. But for the young-earth leaders such as those who work for Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research who are tasked with providing expert answers about how to interpret science within the young-age paradigm one expect more. It is especially troubling that these experts are often unaware, or at least seem uninformed, of the challenges that sites such as these present to their own theories.
Conventional geological dating of these fossils tells us that they are about 10 million years ago with active collection of animals and filling of the cave having taken place over tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. This is obviously problematic for a young-earth paradigm in which all these fossils must have formed after a Noahic Flood which ended less than 4500 years ago.
First, remember that these fossils are found in sediments that were deposited inside an open pit and cave system. Where did the cave come from in the first place? The layers in which the cave originally formed are considered to be of Miocene age by geologists and most creationist writers accept that these rock layers were formed after a global flood rather than by a global flood. So the deposits, which contain various types of rock representing unique depositional environments must have been laid down and turned to rock prior to the dissolution of that same rock to form the cave. The cave then had to suffer a collapse resulting the creation of a pitfall trap. Only then could that pit begin to collect animals and preserve their remains. Over time the entire 30 foot-deep cavern had to fill up and its contents be fossilized.
When considering the chronology of this sequence one also has to account for the fact that people have lived in this region for 3000 years or more after the this pit had already been completely filled.
It boggles the mind to imagine how one might hypothesize that all of these events could have taken place in just the past 4000 years. Even had the pit formed 4000 years ago, how did hundreds of carnivores become trapped in such a short period of time? There are sediments separating many of the bones. These sediments are best interpreted to represent deposits between times when animals died and were slowly buried. These processes of sediment deposition and accidental falls would have taken time. At most a few animals per year would get trapped. But at that rate it would take tens of thousands of years for the lower reaches of the pit to be filled with sediments.
On top of all of the geological context we have the types of fossils found here that must be considered. They are all extinct species of animals and most represent types of animals that do not live anywhere in Europe today. There are deer and horse-like creatures but not a single species, or even ones closely related, that we find today. Relating this back to some of my previous posts we can see some member of the early horse succession here (A horse is a horse of course: unless it isn’t a horse) including a small 3-toed “primitive horse.” The “bear dog” is a huge beast that shares features similar to bears and dogs. Creationist’s today believe that this was a unique “kind” of carnivore that existed as at least 50 different species within the past 4500 years but all those species are extinct today.
The picture we have painted for us by this preserved cave is a picture of an entire ecosystem that is quite foreign to anything that we would recognize today and yet all of these animals would—according to YEC chronology—must have lived in this area of Spain after a global flood less than 4500 years ago. This timeline, as I’ve stated many time in other places, strains credulity. Unfortunately, fossil locations such as this one will either not be mentioned in the creationist literature or will be written about vaguely as being easily explained as an ice-age event that took place over just a few hundred years but the specific geological context of the fossils will not be mentioned. It is a hear-no-evil see-no-evil approach that has served Ham and his colleagues well for a long time. I don’t expect that will change anytime soon but I do feel for Christians that have grown up following YEC literature and are then exposed to places like this fossil site only to discover that creationist’ geology has ill-equipped them to explain the origin of these fossils.
Origin of an Assemblage Massively Dominated by Carnivorans from the Miocene of Spain Domingo MS, Alberdi MT, Azanza B, Silva PG, Morales J (2013) Origin of an Assemblage Massively Dominated by Carnivorans from the Miocene of Spain.PLoS ONE 8(5): e63046. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063046