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Fossil Hunting Without Creationists

by Michael Shermer, Dec 21 2010

click to enlarge photo

This past weekend, December 17–19, 2010, I joined paleontologists Donald Prothero from Occidental College and John Long from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County on a fossil hunting, rock hopping, geology viewing, petroglyph scanning excursion through the Mojave Desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Through the entire trip I kept thinking “I wish the creationists and Intelligent Design theorists would try their hand at some actual field work because then they would see (and hear and smell and especially touch) what nature is really like and what the history of life reveals in the rocks, instead of sitting in an air-conditioned or heated office in some think tank building or school of theology department, trolling through published papers by real scientists who do this field work, trying to find some little gap that must be filled by the creating designer.

At this site (see photograph above), for example—a trilobite bed east of Amboy near Cadiz smack dab in the middle of nowhere (see what I mean on Google Maps)—we sat for hours with our hammers and collecting bags sifting through thousands upon thousands of shale pieces looking for that fossil gem, and finding a few here and there. These are 550 million year old creatures who once roamed through shallow seas but are now swimming in stone (in the elegant phrase of John Long, whose book by this title is a magnificent testimony to the power and beauty of paleontology). There is simply no denying evolution when you see it raw in the rocks (see especially Don Prothero’s book on proving evolution through the fossil record.

We also visited the coolest slot canyon I’ve ever seen, north of Las Vegas, off of Highway 168 (between Highway 93 and Interstate 15), down this miles-long dirt road that required four-wheel drive. This is Arrow Canyon, and the slot cut exposes a kilometer-thick Carboniferous to lower Permian succession, the upper part of a much thicker Paleozoic section ranging back to the Cambrian. The outcrop is nearly 100% exposed due to the arid conditions and sparse desert vegetation, enabling documentation of facies cyclicity and allowing beds to be traced laterally for hundreds of meters. (If you like it when I talk dirty this way I’m afraid that the credit goes to Don Prothero, whom I am quoting in this last sentence from his field guide for this trip!)

Check out the photo of our expedition group in the slot canyon, along with the photo of the tilted geological beds. There is simply no way that this slot canyon could have been cut through this hard rock in a flash (Noahian) flood, nor could these beds be laid down from ancient seas, compacted under extreme pressure and heat into layered beds, and then uplifted by slow geological forces into what we see today, all in only a few years of biblical times.

In the slot canyon, by the way, there were petroglyphs. Sadly, as you will see, some pinheads managed to find the canyon and decided to leave their mark on or around these ancient pictograms, thereby ruining them forever:


click the photo above to see both petroglyph images in this gallery


I did find something for the creationists to crow about. Check out the photograph (below) of a very ancient rock formation on the hike into that slot canyon. Here, embedded solidly on that rock, is a clear and unmistakable footprint with a clear demarcated heal! (I estimate about a men’s size 13.)


click to enlarge image

So there you go creationists, get in your four-wheel drive and head for Arrow Canyon, find that rock (it’s on the right side going into the canyon, about half way to the petroglyphs), photograph it, write up a paper about it, then submit it to the Journal of Young Earth Creationism. Alternatively, if Erich Von Daniken happens to be reading this, you can do the same thing but claim that it is evidence for alien visitation hundreds of millions of years ago. I think it was a Bruno Magli shoe. Adam (or Alien) had expensive taste.

If you are interested in geology tours, you won’t want to miss the Skeptics Society’s 7-day Alaskan Glacier Cruise. If you can’t make it to that tour, sign up to receive advance notification of future tours.

26 Responses to “Fossil Hunting Without Creationists”

  1. Scott Clark says:

    That does sound like fun – hands-on science is the best type. I think I may try to include this in our vacation plans. Of course, I’ll need to promise a warm shower and comfortable bed afterwards!

  2. Michael says:

    Why does the caption of the last picture say “A human footprint in 360 million year old rock.” – Do you mean 3.6 million?

    • Okra says:

      Is there a reason to propose anything less than 360 million? Of course, it’s not really a footprint–just paredolia at work.

  3. oldebabe says:

    Thanks, Dr. S., and Prothero, too, of course. I was on a road trip in the desert in the area and drove through Amboy in the 50s, and it was in “…the middle of nowhere…” as I noted then and you so accurately describe now. I did not think that there could be anything of scientific interest in that dreadful landscape, and certainly no petroglyphs. Subsequently as a geomorphologist, that whole `dreadful’ Mohave ages-old desert landscape took on beauty and meaning. And of course, there’s much more to see and investigate and find, i.e. the Mohave is big, and delightfully full of constantly discovered surprises.

    Faced with this kind of reality of the ages, it must be difficult to be a creationist… but as one of the local residents said to me: “There are YOUR facts, and then there are MY facts”. Oh, my.

  4. BKsea says:

    It looks like whoever left the footprint in the stone also dropped their cinammon roll?

  5. I miss the Mojave Desert. It was one of the highlights from drive down most of Route 66 earlier this year. Amazing.

  6. Rick says:

    I used to live in the Mojave Desert (Ft. Irwin, CA.) back in the mid 90’s. I wish that I would have been interested in those types of things back then like I am now.

  7. bigjohn756 says:

    A heal on a foot? Please, Michael!

  8. The thing is.. Anthropologists eons from now will be studying the rocks and wondering what sort of religious ritual caused Homo sapiens sapiens to mark over the works of others who did the original work ages previously. Who knows what they’ll come up with. You can bet there will be a good story which makes perfect sense. The scientific will say that man began to understand the real intent of the original painters and worked to clarify the picture.. Religionists will say that prophets revealed the truth to more modern spiritualists and God instructed them to modify the original work which was, after all, originally done to prove the existence of God. Some will figure out ways to profit financially. Others will work on ways to governmentally control the studies, the finds and the thinking of all involved. Unbothered will be the most advanced who will not notice the ideological storm because the fishin’ is hot and their supremely tuned faculties will be directed towards the more important aspects of existentialism.. Fixing leaky waders, tying the most effective leaders and so on.

  9. Dave says:

    Cool stuff. I love the Mojave. Spent a bit of time at 29 Palms, and usually enjoyed it. Here’s a question, somewhat serious, why do we revere ancient graffiti and abhor modern graffiti? There are petroglyphs at 29 Palms that I know had to have been drawn by some bored sentry standing watch millennia ago. Nowadays, we would court martial a Marine or Soldier for doing the same thing.

  10. bopfan says:

    “A heal on a foot?” Perhaps it was healed by Jesus?

  11. Pokerpop says:

    I don’t understand the shoe thing. Is that a “tongue in cheek” comment because it kinda looks like a shoe and don’t call me stupid.

  12. Tim says:

    Thank you for that article. The real world is wonderful, and that includes the wonders of geology and evidence of ancient life that can be found in so many places.

    Your emphasis that people need to get out more is excellent.

    If you like what you see on this post, c’mon up and visit the Canadian Rockies. Bring more clothes.

  13. MadScientist says:

    No rubbing elbows with felons on the run?

  14. frank says:

    ‘cmon guys – if ya serious skeptics an not dogmatists surely ya can find some serious creationist(s)* to go (!) along with you and actually have some edifying debate / discussion!

    *You couldn’t (surely!) accuse Steve Austin (for one) of not doing his hard yards in the field.

    best regards,


  15. Barry Johnstone says:

    Science is real – religion isn’t! No religion can be – hence things like ID (creationism in a cheap suit) cannot have ANY validity. It is impossible to make a creditable theory out of bullshit – although many have tried!

  16. peter says:

    You cannot convince anybody who does not want to be convinced.
    Evidence like you present will be shoehorned by YEC into the flood paradigm and the creation of kinds.

    You can only convince those that are skeptical towards their own knowledge and are able to process new data independent of preconceptions.

  17. Actually, ALL of science is founded on the principles of Intelligent Design, namely the “reality” that we live in a universe that clearly manifests intelligence at every level and in every way. No scientist ever conducts science on the premise that we live in an “unintelligent” and “disordered” universe, or that the cosmos has no mathematical regularity or predictability. The very FACT that scientists need to apply vast amounts of intelligence to understand life and the universe establishes that the universe ITSELF must have this quality.
    Furthermore, scientists in every field of science study the composition and design of living organisms and endlessly seek to uses these same “design” principles in modern technology, including the dung beetles ability to see in the dark, to use in modern vehicles. When the scientific establishment gets to the stage where it can no longer accept these self-evident realities it has sawn of the limb science is sitting on, as actually happened at Dover. Which causes one to concluded that most scientists have been clearly educated beyond their intelligence. Sorry, someone had to say it!

    • tmac57 says:

      Who,or what created the ‘creator’?

    • G Money says:

      It seems to me that you’re confusing a universe the operates in a logical, predictable manner with a universe that is guided by intelligence. The absence of chaos doesn’t equal the presence of intelligence. How silly of you!

  18. peter says:

    “No scientist ever conducts science on the premise that we live in an “unintelligent” and “disordered” universe,”

    Where did you get this idiotic notion from? Where does any cosmologist postulate that the beginning of the Universe was not chaotic?

    What has our search for functionality of evolved systems to do with your postulate that because we study them therefore they must have been designed? What kind of arse backward argument is that?
    Get it into your fucking brain that natural systems are not designed but have demonstratively evolved, are a clutter of well functioning and just so functioning elements.

    You just keep spouting the same ID/creotard crap that has been refuted over and over again, but you are a prime example why evidence does not influence a brain bent to shoehorn evidence into its very narrow frame of interpretation and leave out and/or lie about what you cant force to fit.

  19. Al Morrison says:

    Going into the field to investigate YEC arguments makes an analogous point to Joe Nickell’s argument for the field investigation of the paranormal and against armchair debunking. I envy the opportunity you have had to do hands-on investigation, not to mention the experience of fossil hunting for its own sake.

  20. peter says:

    “Going into the field to investigate YEC arguments makes an analogous point to Joe Nickell’s argument for the field investigation”

    No, not in the least. All the earth sciences, biology, physics, astronomy, chemistry etc. combined have long ago debunked the creotards claims as utter bunkum.
    No need to go in the field looking for fossils to find out that there is evidence out there in the rocks. Even without that evidence, the facts of molecular genetics and biology alone would suffice to justify crapping all over the creotards claims.

    I began hunting fossils when I was 10, and began reading about geology then. It was a start to get me into biology and chemistry.
    But in Germany there was no mention in schools about the religion of cretinism – o, sorry, creationism – there was not even a hint when I grew up that this could be a viable hypothesis for anything, it simply was evolution all the way, and the evidence was all around.

    I guess it took American religious idiocy to resurrect that foul old body from its grave since Huxley buried it so successfully.

  21. bill says:

    It’s a shame that one cannot enjoy a geological field trip without the reeking specter of the ID bunch hovering in the air.