Creation/Evolution Journal

Past Imperfect: Scientific Creationism and Prehistoric Archeology

Past Imperfect: Scientific Creationism and Prehistoric Archeology
Reviewed by
Francis B. Harrold

This article explores one aspect of "scientific" creationism and suggests that it illustrates an important general point about that enterprise. I began this investigation because, as an archeologist who has also written about creationism (Harrold and Eve, 1987; Eve and Harrold, 1990), I was interested in how the movement's most influential spokespeople—scientific creationist authors—regard my anthropological specialty.

Scientific creationists are anti-evolutionists who, rather than simply rejecting scientific findings out of hand, argue that scientific evidence, when correctly interpreted, really supports their beliefs. They blame the alleged dogmatic materialism of mainstream scientists for the failure of said scientists to see this truth.

Most prominent scientific creationist authors are "strict" or "young-earth" creationists. According to their literalistic interpretation of Genesis, the earth and all its life (including humankind) were created in more or less their present form during creation week, variously estimated to have been between six thousand and ten thousand but not more than twenty thousand years ago (since Genesis does not specify the date of creation, there is room for disagreement).

Scientific creationists attack standard interpretations of the geological and fossil records, the theory and practice of radiometric dating (such as radiocarbon dating), and any other findings of science which imply an ancient earth or evolutionary processes. They are particularly concerned with human evolution—the very concept of which they regard as degrading and even satanically inspired—and attempt to show that claimed ancient hominid fossils are really either frauds, apes, or modern people.

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As a result, they have little patience with prehistoric archeology, a discipline involving the study of material remains of past cultures which did not produce written records. Since the earliest known archeological sites are over two million years old, and since writing was not invented until about five thousand years ago, prehistoric archeology is our main source of information about human behavior for more than 99 percent of the cultural past. Prehistoric archeologists recover and analyze implements of stone and other durable materials, traces of hearths, huts, and other structures, animal bones processed by hunters, and other clues to the behavior and environment of ancient people. Archeologists' work is complementary to but analytically separate from the study by physical anthropologists of the fossil remains of ancient humans (and prehumans). Prehistoric archeology supplies some information which the actual remains of our distant ancestors cannot—not the least because archeological sites are far more plentiful than human fossil finds. The fullest understanding of ancient humans, of course, comes from integrating the results of analyses of both fossils and archeological sites.

Differing Portraits of the Past

Prehistoric archeologists and scientific creationists draw very different pictures of the human past (see Figures 1 and 2). Archeologists date the earliest known (and very crude) stone tools from sites in Africa to at least 2.3 million years ago. These artifacts are found in contexts indicating their use to obtain both meat and plant food by small-brained early humans. From the time of these earliest tools, slow and uneven progress in the sophistication of tookmaking and tool use appears in the archeological record.

By one million years ago, humans making more sophisticated tool kits had spread across the tropics from Africa to Asia. Before half a million years ago, they had inhabited much of Europe and Asia, had become fairly successful hunters, and had begun to use fire. Later developments included the appearance of deliberate burial of the dead and early forms of symbolic expression, such as art. Eventually, the species spread to Australia and the New World. By ten thousand years ago, plants and animals were being domesticated in the Near East, and by five thousand years ago, civilization had developed there (both of these latter developments were independently achieved elsewhere—for example, in Mexico and South America). Evidence for these conclusions has been excavated from literally thousands of sites, many of which contain numerous stratigraphic levels representing separate occupations stacked atop one another to a depth of many meters (for good general accounts, see Klein, 1989; Wenke, 1984).

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Figures 1 & 2

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The creationist account of the human past is radically different (see Figure 2; also Moore, 1983:184-265; Morris, 1974:174-195, 1984:290-426). It begins with creation, usually dated between six thousand and ten thousand years ago. Creationists assert that, since the first humans were fully modern in intelligence and anatomy, such achievements as agriculture and pastoralism, cities, and crafts like metalworking and pottery appeared shortly after creation. They cite Genesis 4:17, for example, which reports that Cain, son of Adam and Eve, built a city. However, all of these achievements were destroyed without a trace some forty-three hundred to six thousand years ago (depending upon the particular estimate) by the Noachian deluge—which is also credited with depositing the entire fossil record and most of the geological column. Only the eight people and the animals saved in the ark survived.

About a century later, according to creationists, God caused the "confusion of tongues" at the Tower of Babel because people had stayed in the Near East, disregarding his command to go forth and fill all the earth. This event led to the dispersal of humanity, as well as the proliferation of human languages. As people spread from the Near East, the hardships of travel, unfamiliar environments, and isolation caused their cultures to degenerate, losing their technical sophistication. Only some time after settlement of a given region did cultural recovery and fresh waves of migrants cause the reappearance of metallurgy, agriculture, and civilization. In this creationist view, the past is marked not by the slow emergence of cultural complexity but by a decline from sophistication to a very imperfect state as a consequence of human sinfulness. Thus, the stratigraphic sequences of stone tools underlying metal ones and villages underlying cities reflect a brief and recent plunge into cultural degeneracy, followed by a recovery from it—rather than a long process of cultural development.

Creationist Treatment of Prehistoric Archeology

The above interpretation, of course, relies primarily upon Genesis, although most biblical scholars contend that such a use of Genesis is incorrect (see, for example, Frye, 1983). But how do creationists account for its drastic discrepancies from the picture drawn by archeologists? One could imagine two basic approaches to this problem. First, creationists could do archeological research themselves, finding and interpreting evidence to back up their representation of the past. Second, they could tackle the evidence already accumulated by archeologists, showing how it is better explained by the creationist account than by conventional interpretations.

Regarding the first alternative, it is clear that creationists have done precious little research themselves on archeological problems, even though their claims about the past have testable implications. For example, given the creationist account outlined above, one would expect that sophisticated cultural developments such as cities and metallurgy date back literally to the dawn of time. This leads us to the Genesis flood, to which creationists typically ascribe nearly all the geological and fossil records. Flood geology has been shown to be utterly inadequate to account for the fossil and geological records (see, for example, Strahler, 1988:188-243). However, granting for purposes of argument the creationists' geological claims, the question remains: what archeological evidence would one expect to find?

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If fossils of all sorts were deposited by the flood, would we not discover amidst floodlaid strata the durable archeological traces of antediluvian cultures, such as the remains of stone and brick cities or artifacts such as pottery? Of course, we do not find such cultural evidence until geologically recent times, but the point is that creationists have neither noted nor tried to test this idea. Interestingly, Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research has discussed, and dismissed, the possibility of finding antediluvian human fossils (Morris, 1984:421-422) but has not raised the specifically archeological implications of his beliefs. Morris's argument against expecting to find antediluvian human fossils is a classic case of special pleading, based upon the assumption that people fleeing the rising flood waters would have reached the highest peaks before being engulfed and, thus, failed to become incorporated into flood sediments.

Actual archeological research by scientific creationists is extremely rare. The only research program of sorts which could be described as archeological is the search for Noah's ark, inevitably termed arkeology by its critics (LaHaye and Morris, 1976. For appraisals, see R. Moore, 1983; Stiebing, 1984; Feder, 1990). Creationist arkeology should not be confused with the legitimate scholarly field of biblical archeology. Biblical archeologists use standard archeological and historical methods to study the cultures of biblical lands from the Bronze Age to the period of early Christianity.

Most creationists accept a medieval Armenian tradition which identifies the ark's landing place (Mount Ararat) with the volcano Agri Dag in eastern Turkey. They recount alleged sightings there of remnants of the ark by everyone from local peasants to Russian aviators. The ICR and other creationist groups have mounted repeated expeditions to find the ark. On one of these expeditions, ex-astronaut James Irwin nearly died in an accidental fall; on another, ICR's John Morris was struck by lightning. However, no one has ever presented authenticated photographs, fragments, or other hard evidence of the ark found on Agri Dag or elsewhere. Thus, creationists have almost nothing to show in the way of original archeological research to buttress their account of the human past.

What about the second possible approach—demonstration that existing archeological data are better explained by creationists' reconstruction than by conventional accounts? The most immediate stumbling block to any reconciliation between scientific creationism and conventional archeology is in the time scales of the two accounts. Creationists deal with this problem, as with all claims of an ancient earth, by dismissing the dating methods used by archeologists (as well as geologists and paleontologists; for a rebuttal of their criticisms, see Strahler, 1988:129-158). However, creationists sometimes do accept dates supplied by these methods when they are consistent with their beliefs. Thus, Morris says, "Radiocarbon dates for events more recent than 2000 BC may be fairly good, but all earlier dates are invalid due to fallacious assumptions involved in these and other radiometric age calculations" (1984:449). He offers no explanation why radiocarbon dating should work for the past four thousand years but not for earlier times.

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With the cornerstone of dating thus disposed of, the archeological record becomes an assortment of disparate sites and artifacts from which creationists can pick and choose data to support their case. There still remain relative dating methods, which put events of the past at least in correct temporal order. Chief among these is stratigraphy, based upon the order of accumulation of the strata (levels) of a site. Creationists acknowledge the validity of this method when they agree that sequences of archeological levels with stone, then later bronze, and finally iron tools characterize many regions. They do not, however, examine the archeological record in detail but, rather, select bits and pieces of it as it suits their purpose.

For instance, in a rare creationist treatment of evidence from the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age (roughly that which exceeds ten thousand years in age), Duane Gish (1985:185-200) takes issue with standard interpretations of the Zhoukoudian (or Choukoutien) site, famed as the cave home of the Peking Man fossils. At this site, deep deposits, several hundred thousand years old, have yielded fossils of early humans (the small-brained, large-browed Homo erectus), numerous stone tools, evidence of fire, and broken animal bones. Current archeological interpretations of the site vary (Binford and Ho, 1985; Lu Zune, 1985), but all agree that tool-using, meat-eating pre-Pleistocene Homo erectus played a role in the accumulation of the deposits.

Gish, of course, demurs. Most of his discussion of Zhoukoudian is an attempt to discredit the fossils as genuine hominids (members of the human family) intermediate between modern people and earlier hominids. Instead, he calls them apes. His line of argument is outside the scope of this article and has been refuted elsewhere (Brace, 1986). However, Gish also makes an archeological claim: he proposes that the artifacts and evidence of fire at the site were produced not by the Homo erectus "apes" but by fully modern humans who were their contemporaries. He supports this claim by citing a supposed find at this site of skeletal remains of fully modern people. In doing so, however, he simply discounts the records of the site's excavators—records which clearly show that the modern skeletons from the so-called upper cave were found stratigraphically far above the levels which contained Homo erectus and the artifacts in question and are thus much younger. Gish simply asserts that things were not as the excavators described, although he presents no evidence, citing as his only authority an obscure work by a Catholic missionary (O'Connell, 1969) who was in China at the time of the excavations. O'Connell never even visited Zhoukoudian, but Gish approvingly reports his contention (again, presented without evidence) that the site was not a cave after all but a limeworks!

Meanwhile, Gish ignores the recent work at Zhoukoudian by Chinese archeologists which confirms the finds of the original excavations of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as evidence from numerous other sites in China and elsewhere in the Old World that Homo erectus indeed made stone tools and butchered animals with them, among other activities. In short, Gish's archeological claim is resoundingly at variance with the archeological record.

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Creationists typically accept the aspects of standard archeological interpretations which agree with their beliefs and disregard the many other aspects of these same interpretations which contradict them. Morris (1984:444-448), for instance, approvingly and selectively quotes archeologists who state that both agriculture and civilization first emerged in the Near East (the setting of the main events of Genesis). He then claims that the accoutrements of civilization—pottery, metallurgy, animal husbandry, agriculture, and cities—all emerged at about the same time in the Near East, "exactly as the Bible has said all along." He cites a number of archeological studies as supportive of his assertion.

They are not. The same body of research which indicates that agriculture and civilization first emerged in the Near East also shows that agriculture preceded civilization there by several thousand years. Archeological research using the same methods and logic as that cited by Morris furthermore shows that the rise of agriculture in the Near East was preceded by a Paleolithic age hundreds of millennia long; that the world's oldest archeological sites are not in the Near East (as the creationist account requires) but in Africa; that pottery first appeared in Japan rather than the Near East; and that both farming and civilization evolved independently several times in various parts of the world (see Wenke, 1984). Thus, the creationist scheme presented in Figure 2 is resoundingly refuted by the known archeological record.

What scientific creationists mainly do in regard to prehistoric archeology is to discard blithely the standard dating of the past (as too old for their purposes) and to ignore vast amounts of accessible archeological findings which are inconsistent with their beliefs.

Thus, they treat the archeological record much as they treat science in general—with misrepresentation, distortion, and, especially, omission. Needless to say, their writings have not swayed archeologists. However, the failure of scientific creationism as scientific discourse is, in important respects, no failure at all. Its proponents are not writing and speaking to convince archeologists of the error of their ways. They are not really speaking to the scientific community at all. They do not conduct conventional scientific research or try to publish their findings in conventional scientific and scholarly journals (Scott and Cole, 1985).

Instead, as Raymond Eve and I have discussed elsewhere (Eve and Harrold, 1990), their efforts are directed not at mainstream scientists (whom they no doubt regard as a lost cause) but at the lay public. More specifically, creationists aim their literature at two audiences. The first consists of millions of conservative Christians who perceive their biblical literalist faith to be threatened by scientific findings that contradict the creation story in Genesis. Creationists reassure these people by telling them that science, widely accepted in our society as a prestigious source of truth, does not contradict Genesis after all; only the false science promulgated by "secular humanist" scientists opposes the Bible.

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The second audience includes those outside the conservative Christian camp who have no direct stake in the creation-evolution issue but who may be persuaded that there is "something to" scientific creationism. Even if they cannot be converted religiously, the members of this "bystander public" (Turner and Killian, 1987) may be convinced on grounds of "fairness" that their states and communities should have "equal time" policies mandating the inclusion of creationism in public school science classes. Such government accommodation of anti-evolutionism is the principal goal of the current creationist movement.

Most Americans are "scientifically illiterate" (Miller, 1987) and have little comprehension of the concepts, methods, and findings of science. There is enough scientific-sounding terminology in scientific creationist literature (much of which is written by men with doctoral degrees of some sort), combined with populist appeals to "common sense" and anti-elitism, to deeply impress people who lack the requisite knowledge and understanding to evaluate it (Nelkin, 1982:165-179; Eve and Harrold, 1990).

In most ways, prehistoric archeology receives characteristic treatment from scientific creationist authors. However, this treatment is generally brief. In most of the standard creationist publications, there is less space devoted to prehistoric archeology than to the other main source of information about early humanity: the human fossil record. For instance, How to Teach Origins (Without ACLU Interference) by John N. Moore (1983) devotes only about ten pages of an eighty-one-page chapter entitled "Origin of Humankind" to topics in prehistoric archeology. Gish's Evolution: The Challenge of the Fossil Record (1985), whose ninety-two-page chapter "Origin of Man" contains perhaps the most detailed creationist treatment of evidence for the human past, treats prehistoric archeology in three passages totaling less than five pages.

There are exceptions to this generalization. Henry Morris (1984), for example, gives greater prominence to prehistoric archeology. He draws heavily on Arthur Custance (1975a, 1975b), a Canadian anthropologist and specialist in medical physiology, whose rather obscure books deal extensively with archeological topics, though his methods are typically creationist. Custance generally avoids direct confrontation with archeological findings by citing fragments from the literature which seem to support his complicated, Genesis-inspired account of the human past.

Unfortunately, this general creationist inattention to archeology is mirrored in the books by scientists for general readers (Strahler, 1988; Godfrey, 1983). Although they refute creationist claims, they make little mention of archeology while containing considerable discussion of the human fossil record. And the pages of Creation/Evolution have featured a number of articles on creationist misrepresentations of the human fossil record (for example, Conrad, 1982, 1986; Wolf and Mellett, 1985; Nickels, 1986; Brace, 1986) but few concentrating on creationist archeological claims (for an exception, see Cole, 1985).

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Why do creationists say relatively little about prehistoric archeology? If they were really concerned with demonstrating the scientific consensus to be invalid, they would have to come to grips with the evidence supplied by archeology, which points to the antiquity of humankind and the slow emergence of cultural complexity, and offer explanations of that evidence which are superior to those currently accepted. However, as we have pointed out, scientific refutation is not their goal.

Influencing lay people is their goal. To do so, they pragmatically concentrate on the topics of which the lay public is most aware while downplaying those of which there is less popular consciousness. I believe that this is why prehistoric archeology gets short shrift from scientific creationists; most people in their audience are relatively unaware of it. There is some currency in our culture to terms such as cave man and Stone Age (though the latter is actually most often applied to extant peoples—for example, "Stone Age Tribe Found in New Guinea"), and many Americans have heard of the archeology of pre-Columbian Indians (though geologically such remains are very recent). But few people are aware that archeology has provided much information, quite independently of the human fossil record, about early humanity.

Almost everyone has heard of the Leakeys, "Lucy" and Neandertal man, and many people have some notion of the significance of these names. Few, though, have heard of correspondingly important terms in prehistoric archeology, such as Francois Bordes, Olorgesailie, Catal Huyuk, or Cahokia. Few know that many fossil localities, like Olduvai Gorge, are even more important for their archeological sites.

I base this suggestion on my experience of teaching students and watching media treatment of these subjects. To test it less impressionistically, I conducted an online computer search for news articles relevant to the two topics in question (the human fossil record and prehistoric archeology) in the BRS National Newspaper Index, which covers five nationally circulated newspapers—the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times—from 1979 to the present. I reasoned that the incidence of stories of new developments in these two fields would reflect their relative levels of public awareness and interest. The keywords chosen for each category were intended to select stories specifically associated with each of the two areas. The keywords chosen for the fossil man category were Australopithecus, hominid, Homo erectus, Neandertal, Leakey, and Johanson; for the archeology category, I used prehistory, prehistoric, arch(a)eology, Paleolithic, and prehistoric arch(a)eology.

The search results met my expectations: seventy-five stories used the fossil man keywords, while only twenty-five used the prehistoric archeology keywords. We can reasonably infer that the public is less aware of prehistoric archeology and the implications of its findings than of the human fossil record. I think that this
is why the former topic receives less attention from creationists and their critics.

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I suppose that archeologists should be in one sense relieved at being spared the detailed attention of creationists; after all, they must put up with enough nonsense from devotees of "ancient astronauts" and lost continents (Stiebing, 1984; Feder, 1989). On the other hand, this lack of attention implies that the general public is largely unaware of what archeologists do. Given archeology's importance for understanding the human past, its practitioners must increase their efforts to communicate with the public. We should have no illusions that more education, formal or informal, will "solve" the creation-evolution controversy (Eve and Harrold, 1987), but greater public awareness of the basis for the scientific picture of the past can at least help reduce the susceptibility of the religiously uncommitted to the blandishments of "scientific" creationism.


I am grateful to Trudy de Goede of the University of Texas at Arlington Library for her help in conducting the online search discussed above and to the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at the University of Texas at Arlington for the funds to carry it out.

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