For more than 2 million years the pinnacle of human technology was stone tools. During this period – known as the stone age – trillions of artifacts were made by our ancestors in Africa. The Naturalis Historia blog (one of my favourites) noted that this poses a bit of a problem for young earth creationists. They claim the stone age was only 500 years long. How could trillions of artifacts be produced in such a short period of time? Answers in Genesis (AiG) tried to defend the young earth model; arguing:
- Even if you use the evolutionary length of the stone age (~2 million years) there are still too many tools.
- Most of these trillions of artifacts aren’t actually artifacts, but natural formations
- Large parts of Africa weren’t inhabited by hominins, so you can’t estimate stone tools for the whole of Africa.
- Most of these artifacts can’t be reliably attributed to the stone age anyway.
Unfortunately for Dr Mortenson, the author, these arguments don’t have a scrap (or perhaps a stone flake) of veracity between them. Naturalis Historia is right, let me explain why.
1. Trillions of artifacts is still too many for evolution
Dr Mortenson notes that even if the stone age lasted ~2 million years like anthropologists claim there are still too many tools:
Even if we took the even more conservative figure of 15 trillion artifacts in . . . we would have to imagine that every person who ever lived over two million years made 37.5 stone tools each year his whole life regardless of his age or health and life circumstances.
Most of this argument is despatched by an excellent post over at the Age of Rocks blog; which points out several flaws with Dr Mortenson’s numbers. As such I won’t spend too much time on it. Go read that post if you’re interested in more. However, there is one key point the Age of Rocks missed: debitage.
Stone tools are made by taking a rock and smashing pieces off until it’s the shape you want. Those waste flakes are counted as artifacts. The original research all these estimates are derived from notes that, depending on what stone tool you’re making, there can be 10 – 100 (and maybe even more) of these waste flakes per tool. So when Dr Mortenson suggests everyone would have had to have made 37 tools a year; that could actually be as low as 1 tool a year.
These figures are still too high to make the young earth creationist model seem reasonable, but suddenly it doesn’t seem so problematic for evolution to result in trillions of artifacts. Additionally, the fact that such a key point in the original research was missed by Dr Mortenson seems to indicate he didn’t do a particularly good job of reading it.
As an interesting aside, for a good chunk of the stone age these “waste” flakes were actually the desired tools. People didn’t realise they could shape the core until much later.
2. Stone “tools” are actually natural
Dr Mortenson continues
these [artifacts] are mainly gravels transported and deposited by moving water. In the process they were rounded or shattered to varying degrees . . . In any case, they are not all artifacts (“stone-age” tools) scattered over this vast area. In fact, it is highly questionable if any but a few of them are.
Stop the presses everyone. Stones can break naturally. This is something now archaeologist had ever realised! It changes everything.
Oh wait, yes they had. Scientists are fully aware that rocks can break naturally (such rocks are called geofacts) and have a whole raft of techniques for telling them apart from actual artifacts. Most notably:
- Is the artifact all the same colour? Natural damage often happens quite long apart, so different parts are exposed to the air/water for different lengths of time. This makes them differently coloured.
- How big are the scars? Getting large flakes off a rock requires them to be hit at a very precise angle. The odds of a rock naturally being hit at this angle is small, let alone being hit multiple times. Lots of large scars are a key sign of human use
- How many scars are there? The odds of the same rock being hit dozens of times is rather small.
- Is there any damage to the platform (the part of the rock hit to make the flakes). Humans will make mistakes and/or prepare this area to make it optimal for flake removal. The natural explanation is that the exact same part of the rock was hit multiple times. Which seems more likely?
- The bulb of percussion is a sign the rock was hit really hard. Typically, to be hit that hard a human has to be responsible.
The ask archaeology page has a pretty nifty piece on geofacts if you’re interested in reading more. Rest assured, we can say with great confidence that these are all actual artefacts.
3. Humans didn’t live in the whole of Africa
Dr Mortenson also points out that it’s wrong to estimate the trillions of artifacts from across the whole of Africa since hominins didn’t live across the whole of Africa.
“Such ‘artifacts’ are not found all across Africa, as there is much of Africa that isn’t desert. And they are not seen anywhere across the USA that I am aware of, or in Australia.” Without a doubt the number of these “artifacts” is far less than the trillions claimed by these evolutionists for Africa, to say nothing of the rest of the continents
Fortunately for me I don’t have to write anything in response to this since it’s dealt with in the original paper on the trillions of artifacts. The authors note
Given the complex and variable ecology across Africa today and in the past, and an uneven hominin distribution, a more realistic estimate would be to consider the prehistoric distribution of stone tools over half the continent’s surface, yielding an average density of between 0.5 million and 5 million artefacts per km2.
In other words, this object stems entirely from the fact Dr Mortenson didn’t read the research he’s criticising. And they say anthropologists are the bad scientists!
4. The trillions of artifacts aren’t from the stone age
Dr Mortenson claims that many of the trillions of artifacts are surface finds. As such they don’t have any archaeological context associated with them. So how do we know they’re from the stone age? It’s worth noting at no point does he provide evidence that most of the artifacts are surface finds. He seems to base it purely on the fact the original Naturalis Historia post includes some pictures of stone tools on the surface.
Don’t worry though, there are many surface finds. Though we can still tell how old they are in many cases.
The easiest way is to try and identify which industry you’re newly discovered tools belong too. Hominin technology can be broken down into these industries; each of which lasted a specific period of time. Thus you know your tools were made during that period. However, that period of time is long, with some industries being made for a million years. So this isn’t the preferred method.
Better techniques might involve digging up the ground, or looking at nearby cliff faces to find the source of the tools. Often they’re being eroded out of nearby cliffs, so by examining them you can find the original source complete with archaeological context. Or even better, the tools might still be encased in some sediment from a rock layer you discover through excavation.
In short, there are a lot of artefacts, they are really old and they do pose a problem for creationists.