Hello, and welcome to the eleventh in my series of presentations on the conflict between science and creationism.
Today, I’m going to be talking about the subject of Archaeology, and cover a little about the background to civilisation. In particular, I’ll be looking at the historical periods in which the Old Testament events were said to have occurred.
Today I’m not actually basing my talk directly on the presentations by infamous Young Earth Creationist Kent Hovind, but instead I’m giving an overview of the archaeological evidence that shows that the Earth is very much older than the Young Earth Creationists claim it to be.
This is quite a short presentation, but it’s an interesting topic, so let’s get started.
Dating Ancient Cultures
Archaeology is actually a really powerful subject to include in a debate against Creationists, as it makes a total nonsense of any young earth claims. Civilisation with rigorously datable relics has existed since way before 4004 BC, which is when young-earth creationists claim the Earth was formed.
Note that in lots of archaeological writing, the term 'BCE' (before the common era) is used instead of BC (before Christ) because it avoids the obvious religious implications. It means the same thing. Similarly 'CE' (common era) instead of 'AD' (Anno Domini or Year of our Lord). I have used that convention in this presentation from now on. I wouldn't bother too much with these and just use what your audience is likely to appreciate. Changing date conventions just to spite your audience is a bad idea!
Kent Hovind understandably avoids the topic of Archaeology as much as possible, except of course for the suggestion that radiometric dating is flawed. I dealt with that in an earlier presentation.
When dating archaeological remains, as with any dating methods, the important thing to remember is that many different and entirely independent dating methods all give very similar dates for common archaeological events, such as volcanic eruptions, ice ages, floods and earthquakes. The more methods which independently point towards the same number, the more unlikely it is that they are all mistaken by exactly the same amount. Bear in mind also that there is a lot of very strong archaeological evidence showing that civilisation was alive and well right through the period when the alleged biblical flood was supposed to have occurred, and it's possible to know that without even using radiometric dating (just in case if creationists try to pull the typical 'it isn't reliable' argument).
There is a great deal of evidence used to date ancient civilisations. One of the most powerful methods is that of Carbon-14 dating, which can accurately date remains throughout the Neolithic and Mesolithic periods; that is, out to 20,000 years ago. We also can use dendrochronology (dating based on tree-rings) to date wooden remains discovered as part of ancient archaeological sites. Both these methods, despite the protestations of creationists, are extremely robust, very well tested and offer extremely coherent, mutually-reinforcing chronologies.
In addition, ancient societies can be dated well by using the literary wealth of their cultures. Many of them have extensive written records detailing the chronology of kings, pharaohs and emperors way back several thousands of years. While these can't be trusted on their own, they do seem often to tie in well with the available archaeological evidence from other methods, and from totally independent written sources from other cultures. Of course, some items such as coins and coronation records come with their own dates already inscribed.
Very strong evidence can date the Roman Empire back to its roots, and before that the Greek empire back to around 1100 BCE. Before that was the Mycenaean civilisation, that of the Trojan wars and the Homerian epics. You're already within less than a millennium of the alleged biblical flood, and archaeology of this period can be tied up with Egyptian records to take the chronology reliably back a great deal further.
Societies can also be dated by their records of natural events - for example, large volcanic eruptions which eject huge quantities of ash into the atmosphere. Not only will this ash layer travel a great distance, and will be present in other archaeological finds in other parts of the world, independently dated through other methods, but it will probably also be present in ice core samples from both poles, and might have affected global climate such that a dip in temperature could be measured in tree rings. Example events are the Hekla eruption in Iceland, roughly 1000 BCE, and the eruption of Thera that finished the Minoan civilisation somewhere around 1600 BCE, plus or minus 50 years or so. These events left traceable records in all major civilisations that existed at the time, as well as in independently verifiable geological records. They offer precise calibration for both C-14 dating of archaeological finds, as well as the chronologies founded on Neolithic written records.
Let’s look at the history of civilisation in more detail.
History of Civilisation
The history of human civilisation is a lengthy one, though really we need only confine ourselves to the last 6,000 years. However, just for an overview, the genus Homo has been around for millions of years, and the period known as the Paleolithic roughly follows the technological history of our genus from the time at which the most primitive stone tools first appeared, roughly 2.6 million years ago, right up to the middle stone age, or Mesolithic. The boundary here roughly corresponds to the time in which humans began to settle into larger villages and towns, and farming first appeared. We started to make more complex tools, such as boats and bows and arrows, and the art which adorned cave walls from the late Paleolithic flourished into a much wider culture including more ornate carvings, jewellery and so on.
The end of the Mesolithic and beginning of the Neolithic, or new stone age, happened at greatly differing times in different regions. In the Levant, the area around Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Syria, where the first advanced societies began, this transition happened around 20,000 years ago, with more distant places not really seeing this change until much later, perhaps closer to 12,000 years ago in Europe. Partly, of course, this was timed with the end of the last major ice age, during which time settled farming was largely impossible in Europe.
The Neolithic period takes us up to roughly the time when the Earth was supposed to have been formed, according to the Bible, in around 4000 BCE. During this period, stone tools became increasingly complex, jewellery was developed into an art form, and ended around 4000 – 3000 BCE as the first metal tools first began to be manufactured. This period also includes the first domestication of most of our farmed animals such as pigs, sheep and goats.
The end of the stone age is marked by the beginning of the bronze age, around 3300 BCE. Bronze is an alloy of tin and copper, and was relatively easy to smelt for those societies with access to the ores. The bronze age ended around 1200 BCE with the beginning of the Iron age. Iron, with a higher melting temperature, was much harder to work, but was also much stronger than bronze, so it began to become much more popular as knowledge for its manufacture spread across the civilised world. It was during this time that the books of the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible were first written down. It is thought that the ancient Israelites first started using writing around 800 or 900 BCE, and that the books were probably written down soon after, presumably following ancient oral tradition.
The Iron age takes us through the rest of the entire Bible, in essence, and right the way through the life of Jesus and the formation of the New Testament, up to the end of the Roman Empire around 400 CE. This was when the Iron Age really came to a close, and the Middle ages began.
Civilisation in 4004 BCE
So now that we’ve done a very brief tour of the societies and technologies that were around during biblical times, let’s look at some specific dates.
According to most young earth creationists, the Earth was formed literally according to the mythological story in Genesis, some time in the last 10,000 years, and the date that many of them hold seems to be 4004 BCE. This date was first written down by Archbishop Ussher, who was the Primate of all Ireland in the 16th century, and who calculated the apparent dates of Biblical events based on the dates and timescales given in the Bible itself. Ussher worked out that the Earth was created “some time in the night immediately preceding the 23rd October, 4004 BCE”. He also worked out that the flood of Noah took place in 2349 to 2348 BCE, the exodus in 1491 BCE and so on.
We now know that Ussher’s chronology is ridiculous – and in fact it was largely known to be so by the end of the 18th Century - but what was actually happening in the world in 4004 BCE? What evidence do we have that human civilisation was flourishing then?
This period corresponds to the very end of the Ubaid period and the beginning of the Uruk Period in Sumerian history. This was the end of a rapid period of urbanisation, in which towns were developing and the Sumerians were building technologies such as pottery, of which we have numerous articles, and were forging a trading network through to Oman. And in the Uruk period, the city of Uruk became the principle centre for the Sumerian civilisation, possibly housing between ten and twenty thousand people by the end of the fourth millennium BCE.
So as the Earth was allegedly beginning, we are at the very end of the Neolithic or New Stone Age, a period often referred to as the Chalcolithic or copper age. At this period in the history of civilisation, we often see the first appearance of copper artefacts in archaeological sites, and the first large-scale towns and cities are beginning to spring up.
Then let’s skip over to the Indian sub-continent. The city of Mehrgarh, in modern-day Pakistan, was continuously occupied between 7000 and 2600 BCE. It started as a small farming village, but gradually grew into a much larger city sustained by an extensive network of farms containing many intensively cultivated crops. They had a rich textiles and manufacturing industry, and there is even evidence of early dentistry dating from roughly 5,500 to 7,000 years ago.
Elsewhere in the world, what was happening? Well 1000 to 2000 years before the world was supposed to have begun, writing was being invented in Mesopotamia – we know this from archaeological finds of symbols inscribed onto shells and clay tablets dating from this time. And around 4000 BC, when the world began, the wheel was invented in Mesopotamia and central Europe. The Egyptian Naqada culture, the precursors to the Ancient Egyptians, were spreading out along the length of the Nile, and the Liangzhu culture in China were busy carving ornate jade and ivory jewellery.
So no, the world did not begin in 4004 BCE – the claim that it did is so absurd that it never ceases to amaze me that anyone could ever believe it. But there we are. Just for fun, let’s move on to something arguably even more absurd: the global flood of Noah.
Civilisation in 2500 BCE
According to the Biblical chronology, the flood of Noah happened some time around, or shortly after, 2500 BCE. According to the book of Genesis, this flood covered the entire Earth to above the highest mountains and wiped out every living thing, except the animals that Noah took with him aboard the Ark. There are so many problems with this story it’s difficult to know where to start, but I’ll cover it in more detail in a later presentation. For now, let’s look at how we know that such a flood certainly has never occurred in the history of the human race.
Our best lead here is to look at the Egyptian civilisation. We don’t even need to use radiometric dating methods here – the Egyptians kept detailed records of their Pharaohs right back to the beginning of the Old Kingdom, which is usually dated at 2686 BCE, though there is some uncertainty in this. This was the beginning of the third dynasty of Egyptian Pharaohs, beginning with Djoser, who commissioned the first of the great step pyramids that bear his name.
Of course, it is worth mentioning that there is no record in any Egyptian text of a significant flood during this period. Nothing at all. The Egyptian mythology did have a sort-of flood myth, but it was a local affair, and was said to have happened tens of thousands of years ago, caused when the goddess Hathor went on a killing spree and slew so many people that their blood flowed like a river. There is no mention of any Noah-like character in the Egyptian flood myth.
The third dynasty gave way to the 4th dynasty around 2613 BCE. This dynasty continued until around 2494 BCE, or just after the alleged flood occurred. During the fourth dynasty, the famous pyramids of Giza were constructed by the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. The latest of these was constructed just before the end of the 4th dynasty, around 2500 BCE. When the flood allegedly happened, the Pharaoh Djedefptah was on the throne. After his death, power was taken up in the fifth dynasty with Userkaf around 2494 BCE. Despite being only 4 years after the alleged flood, he seems to have taken over a powerful civilisation containing enough labour to build his pyramid in Saqqara.
Outside of Egypt, several other civilisations were also growing in strength. In Mesopotamia, early dynastic city states were springing up, and the Elamite civilisation was growing in modern-day Iran. Armenia was founded in 2492 BCE, and 25 years later, in 2467 BCE, the Chinese Civilisation was founded by the so-called Yellow Emperor Huangdi. And around this time, the construction of the monument of Stonehenge begins in England. It appears that Noah and his family did a lot of breeding in just a few short years. Oh, and nobody wrote any of this down, which seems very strange.
Of course, it’s not just human beings that we can trace back this far. The bristlecone pine “Methuselah” is almost 5,000 years old, having germinated in 2832 BCE. I’m not aware of any records of trees being submerged under kilometres of sea water for months on end and surviving, but maybe I’m just missing something. Let’s move on.
The Oldest Farmers
Finally, alongside the archaeological evidence we also have the science of DNA analysis which can tell us a lot about the history not only of our own species, but also of other species that we encounter regularly in our daily lives. The most interesting examples as far as this presentation goes are those that relate to the origins of farming in the fertile crescent around 12,000 years ago.
We can tell a lot about the farming of ancient human civilisation by looking at the archaeological remains, such as field layouts and the devices used for harvesting and milling grain, but using DNA we can look at the time at which modern cereal crops last shared a common ancestor, and we can trace that back to around 9,000 BCE in the mountains of southeast Turkey. And, of course, if we are lucky enough to find individual grains, we can date them using Carbon-14.
I’ve put a few more dates on this slide that highlight the progression of farming across the Middle East. Domestication of farmyard animals began around 7000 BCE and has continued ever since. The early Egyptians began farming the banks of the Nile around 6000 BCE and then farming reached Western Europe around 1000 years later in 5000 BCE. So clearly farming was well underway when the Earth was allegedly formed out of nothing in 4004 BCE. Again, the science of Archaeology makes a complete laughing stock of any Young Earth claims, and by learning about the history of civilisation you can truly appreciate just how wrong the young earth creationists are.
Well that’s all for now. As ever, there’s loads more information on my website at frayn.net, where you can also find a transcript of this talk and all the following ones, and all the previous ones, and you can keep up-to-date with my blog as well as learning about some of my other work.
See you next time, when I’ll be talking about the science of geology, and how we can reliably learn about Earth’s history by studying the rocks and continents from which it is formed.
Thanks for listening!