What would disprove evolution? A well-dated species being found far beyond its time. Like if we found a fossil dinosaur gnawing on a modern human. Creationists claim to have found such a thing in the form of 10 million-year-old stone tools. These “artefacts” – technically called eoliths – would thus be millions of years older than any species which could have made them. A real problem for our understanding of human evolution.
This point has been argued by several people for – literally – centuries. The first eoliths were found in the Victorian period. However, the recent advocates for eoliths come from Answers in Genesis. This multi-million dollar creationist organisation has published a 34-page scientific paper on the subject. It claims to prove eoliths are ancient stone tools, turning the chronology fo evolution upside down.
(hat tip to Belac for pointing out this article to me)
The creationist paper is long. It’s 34 pages of describing eoliths found around the turn of the century. These rocks were discovered when our understanding of the stone age was in its infancy. These stones came from ancient layers, looked crudely made, and fit in with all the stereotypes Victorians had about early man. Like coming from Europe, where obviously humans evolved. Because Europe is the coolest place, and Victorians were oh so racist.
However, a growing body of evidence suggested humans evolved in Africa. Combined with an increasing understanding of how rocks could wind up looking like tools through natural means (the results termed “geofacts”) led to eoliths being abandoned. Oh, plus a better understanding of how old they were. Most come from Miocene sediments, several million years older than the Pliocene strata where the oldest tools are found. They were then locked away in museum collections, an old quirk of a bygone, naive age. Like Piltdown man.
However, the Answers in Genesis paper contends this dismissal came too early. It examines several dozen eoliths (out of a collection of thousands) from Europe. Armed with a better understanding of what a stone tool looks like, the creationist began comparing the two. It turns out he was able to find accepted stone tools that looked like all these eoliths. Surely then, eoliths must be real tools?
There’s not much more nuance to it than that. The entire paper is essentially anecdotes, finding eolith rocks that look like man-made rocks. There’s no large-scale survey or analysis. It’s all a series of photos.
Photos that do show some striking similarities. Might Answers in Genesis be onto something? To examine this, we first have to examine how we identify a stone tool.
Spotting stone tools
The problem with studying stone tools stems from how our ancestors made them. They used a variety of techniques, some of which were incredibly complex. But they all boil down to one basic method: hit a rock until it breaks into the shape you want. Thus, anything else which results in a rock being hit can create a similar trace. From tumbling down a mountain, being trampled by an animal, to washing down a river, so-called “geofacts” can be a pain in the neck for archaeologists.
Fortunately, most stone tools can be easily differentiated from geofacts. There are various tell-tale signs that help tell the two apart. Such natural damage, for example, rarely produces more than a handful of “hits” to the rock. Those hits are rarely patterned in a focused way and rarely produce symmetrical results. Perhaps the most telling sign is how often a finished “tool” is repeated. The random pattern of nature means two geofacts rarely look alike. Finding artefacts in the process of being made or used is another good way of spotting a tool.
The object which perhaps most fulfils the criteria, being the most obvious tools, is the famous handaxe. The evidence of repeated, focused striking producing symmetrical “cookie-cutter” tools is clearly human.
Unfortunately for us, our ancestors weren’t always trying to create these recognisable, symmetrical tools. Sometimes they just needed a sharp blade, so broke a sharp fragment of a rock. These simple flakes begin to look a bit more similar to these geofacts.
Even when examining ancient stone tools that lack the complexity of a handaxe, the same sort of approach for identification still works. Was a rock hit more times than could be explained naturally? Are there examples of tools in varying stages of production/use? Is the same form repeated more often than chance would dictate?
As you might begin to see, the difference between these sorts of tools and geofacts becomes more quantitative rather than qualitative. Whether or not a rock was hit doesn’t tell you much about whether it is a stone tool or not. But the quantity of smacks, their distribution, the number of tools in the assemblage, and so forth. That’s where information starts becoming useful.
However, it also means that some of these features will crop up on geofacts occasionally. It’s the luck of the draw. When you’re examining a handful of tools from a site, the result might be ambiguous. But when you zoom out and see the whole site, trends become apparent. And it’s those trends that can allow you to reliably identify if the artefacts from a site are man made.
The following example from Kirmington, England, highlights this quite well. A site was found with ambiguous artefacts that might be geofacts. Each rock earned a score based on how many man-made characteristics it had. This was then compared to the score for flakes made of the same material collected from non-archaeological sites nearby. As the chart below shows, there is an overlap. There are some ambiguous results. But when you consider the whole formation, the artefacts earn a higher score.
The same approach has been tried for an ambiguous site in Poland, called Kończyce Wielkie. There the results showed the opposite, with the suspected artefacts scoring much lower than known artefacts from other Polish sites. However, it was a similar score to natural rocks found at Mokzeszow.
So, if you’re really curious about whether or eoliths are actual artefacts, the trick is to examine the site as a whole. Zoom out, do a complete statistical analysis and compare it to known artefacts and “control rocks” from natural sources.
When you realise the sort of work that needs to be done to examine eoliths, the creationist paper becomes laughably awful. Not a single site is given a statistical treatment. In fact, there’s not even any qualitative data presented. It’s all a case of trying to find known artefacts that look like the eoliths. As the above examples show, that would be possible and yet prove nothing. Only a complete statistical analysis would yield any useful data.
In essence, the creationist paper is just a bit of cargo-cult science. Bad research dressed up in scientific clothes to give it the appearance of credibility. It has figures, sub-headings, scientific terms, and more. But without the key statistics, it all means nothing.
Fortunately for people genuinely curious about the status of eoliths, someone has done these sorts of large-scale comparisons. A researcher took a classic eolith assemblage from Kent and subjected it to the same battery of tests discussed above. The rocks were scored based on how many tool attributes they had. This score was compared to control artefacts and natural samples.
The results clearly show that eoliths fall within the range expected for naturally occurring rocks. They aren’t ancient tools, and if Answers in Genesis had done even the most basic statistical tests, they would have realised that. But they aren’t good scientists so they didn’t. Instead, they have 33 pages of pseudo-science waffle stuck up on their website. An eternal reminder of how they only have the appearance of science, but not an ounce of the credibility the discipline actually has.
Peacock, E., 1991. Distinguishing between artifacts and geofacts: a test case from eastern England. Journal of Field Archaeology, 18(3), pp.345-361.
Wiśniewski, A., Badura, J., Salamon, T. and Lewandowski, J., 2014. The alleged Early Palaeolithic artefacts are in reality geofacts: a revision of the site of Kończyce Wielkie 4 in the Moravian Gate, South Poland. Journal of Archaeological Science, 52, pp.189-203.