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When Dating Methods Don’t Agree

by  Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

Scores of textbooks have described the event as though historians recorded it with pinpoint accuracy. Supposedly, there was a land bridge that connected Asia and North America 10,000 to 15,000 years ago across the Bering Strait. This land bridge allowed humans to migrate into the Americas—or so the textbooks claim. But now a new discovery calls that piece of “history” into question. Further analysis of this discovery has researchers pitting dating methods against fossils, as they try to grasp exactly what to interpret from the data.

The controversy stems from ancient footprints discovered by English researchers in volcanic ash outside the Mexican city of Puebla. According to Rex Dalton:

The team first stumbled on the prints in the summer of 2003 while hiking between archaeological sites near the dried bed of Valsequillo Lake. They found an ash field peppered with more than 200 impressions that seem to be footprints from several people, including children, along with birds, cats, dogs and species with cloven feet. Gonzalez thinks they might have been fleeing an eruption from the nearby Cerro Toluquilla volcano (2005).

The first part of the controversy centers on the fact that the foot impressions were allegedly dated to about 40,000 years ago. This figure was obtained by Thomas Higham from the University of Oxford, UK, who used radiocarbon dating of the shells identified in sediments just above the layer of ash. This age, however, predates the alleged timeline of the ice age, and thus has people walking in America before they supposedly walked over the land bridge! The team from England touted the footprints “as definitive proof that humans were in the Americas much earlier than 11,000 year ago, which is the accepted date for the arrival of humans across a northern land-bridge from Asia” (Sanders, 2005).

Just to be sure that the assigned date was not some mistake or caused by some foreign artifact, the researchers proceeded to date materials below the footprint layer, the footprint layer itself, and then on top of the footprint layer. These scientists, led by geologist Silvia Gonzalez, knew their study would be extremely controversial. Gonzalez told the BBC News Web site, “It’s going to be an archaeological bomb, and we’re up for a fight” (Rincon, 2005). Bomb indeed! Consider how long textbooks have been teaching children that man arrived in the Americas by the Bering Strait land bridge. One of the team members, Matthew Bennett of Bournemouth, was quoted on a Royal Society Web site as saying: “Accounting for the origin of these footprints would require a complete rethink on the timing, route and origin of the first colonization of the Americas” (as quoted in Sanders, 2005).

Paul Renne, director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center, was skeptical of the ancient footprints, and decided to conduct his own study with an investigative team of geologists and anthropologists. Renne’s results definitely differed from the team from England, but not in the way expected. Reporting on Renne’s study, Robert Sanders observed: “Alleged footprints of early Americans found in volcanic rock in Mexico are either extremely old—more than 1 million years older than other evidence of human presence in the Western Hemisphere—or not footprints at all” (2005). The new age that Renne and his team assigned the impressions was 1.3 million years using 40argon/39argon dating! Modern human footprints at 1.3 million years old!? This would have modern humans walking around the Americas a million years before the famed evolutionary “out-of-Africa” scenario occurred.

In discussing the data, Renne remarked: “You’re really only left with two possibilities. One is that they are really old hominds—shockingly old—or they’re not footprints” (Sanders, 2005). In their brief communication in Nature, Paul Renne, et al., observed:

If the markings on the exposed surface of the tuff are human footprints recorded soon after its eruption, the obvious implication is that they are 1.3 million years old. This would be truly extraordinary as such antiquity predates even the most speculative credible inferences about the first known appearance of Homo sapiens in the western hemisphere by more than a million years. Indeed, the Xalnene tuff [Mexico volcanic samples—BH] pre-dates the first known appearance of H. sapiens (in Africa) by more than a million years. If the markings are hominid footprints, they would be most likely to have been made by a hominid that existed before H. sapiens, and we consider such a possibility to be extremely remote (2005, p. E8, parenthetical item in orig.).

The proverbial rock and hard place comes to mind in this instance. If scientists accept Gonzalez’s interpretation, then American history will have to be rewritten and it will be back to the drawing board as to how man arrived in America. If Renne’s team is correct, then modern man walked in America before Africa—something few evolutionists want to consider. Do we place our trust in radiocarbon dating or radiometric dating? After all, obviously both cannot be correct in this instance.

Rather than call either into question, Renne offers another solution. Chalk the fossil impressions up as erroneous—not footprints. When something threatens the beloved evolutionary theory and questions history as we have concocted it, then discount the data. Renne’s “solution” is simply that these are not footprints. After all, they couldn’t be! Sounds an awful lot like what happened with the famous Laetoli footprints. The fossil evidence and the dates simply could not be correct. There is, however, a third alternative—one that most scientists refuse to acknowledge. What if we called our dating methods into question? Isn’t it time we trust the fossils and investigate radiometric dating methods and assumptions? Is it possible that all this time we’ve been assigning ancient dates to artifacts and fossils when, in reality, those dating methods are inaccurate? If scientists are predisposed to evaluate everything with an evolutionary mindset, this solution will never even be considered.

REFERENCES

Dalton, Rex (2005), “Ancient ‘Footprints’ Found in Mexico,” Nature, [On-line], URL: http://www.nature.com/news/2005/050704/full/050704-4.html.

Renne, Paul R., Joshua M. Feinberg, et al., (2005), “Age of Mexican Ash with Alleged ‘Footprints,’” Nature, 438:E7, December 1.

Rincon, Paul (2005), “Footprints of ‘First Americans,’” BBC News, [On-line], URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4650307.stm.

Sanders, Robert (2005), “Alleged 40,000-Year-Old Human Footprints in Mexico Much, Much Older than Thought,” EurekaAlert, [On-line], URL: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-11/uoc--a4h112805.php.




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