Wonderwerk Cave is a cave in South Africa that has been excavated since the 1940s for its ancient archaeological remains. The earliest date to around two million years – the ones relevant here are only the one million years old, however.
The paper here is Microstratigraphic evidence of in situ fire in the Acheulean strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa, freely avialiabe from PNAS (as is an author summary). Also possibly of use is a summary at EvoAnth, so go read at least two of those and come back.
He starts off:
According to standard notions of human evolution, the controlled use of fire represented a key turning point in the development of modern humans from ape-like ancestors. So, evolutionary paleoanthropologists have been interested in pinpointing when humans began using fire. New evidence from South Africa’s Wonderwerk cave has established that someone was burning wood and bones much earlier than widely thought. But is its age assignment trustworthy?
So he’s not disputing the fact that it’s controlled fire that has been found, he’s going to try and challenge the age. Which makes more sense from his position.
A report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences assigned the stratum to an ancient and long lasting time period called the Acheulean.
The Acheulean is a time period? More a ‘tool culture’ that is distinctive to a period. A little like calling the late nineties after ‘Windows 9x’ – a little backwards, frankly, but if strata filled with broken computers was the best archaeological evidence you had…
But if it’s the Acheulean ‘age assignment’ that Brian is asking about in the first paragraph, then the answer to his question is quite definitely ‘yes.’ The cave contains sever layers of artefact-containing sediment, a number of which contain Acheulean tools. It’s a cave, so all the weird and wonderful things creationists claim can happen to sediment to ruin our idea of how it was laid down are not really able to happen. This find is in one of the layers containing the relevant tools. As the paper says:
The archaeological sequence begins with a small tool industry attributed to the Oldowan in basal stratum 12, which is overlain by an Acheulean sequence. This sequence shows developments from rare protobifaces (stratum 11) through bifaces with noninvasive retouch in stratum 10 (Fig. 1 B and C), to highly refined biface production beginning in stratum 9 (detailed in SI Text and Fig. S2). The evidence for fire presented in this study comes from stratum 10.
This seems rather conclusive to me. It’s the dating that Brian should be arguing about.
Until this discovery, most had believed that man’s use of fire had evolved perhaps 700,000 years ago, but the archaeological stratum inside the cave contains tiny charred remains dated to within approximately 290,000 years of one million years ago. The study authors wrote that this is “a time range that fits with current understanding of the chronological position of the early Acheulean within the ESA [Earlier Stone Age] in Southern Africa.”
The dating isn’t as precise as you might like, but there you go. Actually, it’s a little more precise than Thomas claims – it’s actually .99 million years old ± only .19 million years (and not .29 – a typo on his part?). The dating fits with the artefacts, and everything seems to work. This time, as it happens, was the age of Homo erectus, who are already credited with the later finds from ~700,000 years mentioned by Thomas.
What would these researchers have done with age estimates that did not fit the consensus? Discordant ages are routinely discarded or explained away as contaminants. These kinds of dates are systematically hand-fitted to the pre-existing evolutionary dating scheme.
He gives a cite here – the only one in this article aside from that to the paper itself – to a John Morris book, The Young Earth, Revised and Expanded. As for the discarded dates, it might be more correct to say that discordant ages – often ‘discordant’ with other dating methods used to constrain the age of the find, and not just with what you would think the age was – are investigated and found to be flawed in this way or that. They are not discarded without reason.
In this case, the dating was not done as part of this study, and instead they are from this paper in the Journal of Human Evolution. I see no evidence that any dates were unfairly dismissed, and Brian offers none beyond his claim that such things are ‘routine.’ Some specifics would be nice, beyond an authoritative-looking reference to a book I don’t have access to (not that authoritative-looking though – he doesn’t give page numbers or anything).
Study authors mentioned that their age “fits with current understanding”—betraying their circular evolutionary age dating procedures. First, only those age indicators that fit the consensus are selected for publication. Afterward, scientists point to those published dates as confirmation of great antiquity.
Again, some evidence that this is what has occurred would be nice. All that quote ‘betrays’ is that scientists check their work to see if it fits what was already known, which is commendable. But note also that we are discussing a study claiming that Homo erectus began to control fire hundreds of thousands of years before previously thought. If there really was a conspiracy of scientists not to publish results that don’t “fit the consensus” we would not be reading this.
The charred bits of bone and plant matter fit quite well within the timeline of biblical creation. So-called “Earlier Stone Age” remains in South Africa most likely correspond to peoples who, having been recently dispersed from the Tower of Babel, were the first to have migrated to that area. Those pioneers undoubtedly lived in caves for a time, since they had not yet had time to build homes.
Brian claims that these finds can be shoehorned into his narrative. The problem, however, is the fact that this is not an isolated find. Going back to the paper quote I gave above, there are multiple layers of archaeological artefact-containing strata. They have a sequence of increasing complexity in toolmaking, and there are layers below the one that contained the fire that don’t have evidence of fire in them. This does not look like a group of humans making a temporary home in some caves while they made their houses. And for that matter, “pioneers … liv[ing] in caves for a time, since they had not yet had time to build homes” is… not even wrong. Is Mr Thomas envisioning some kind of camp while the town of Kuruman was constructed nearby? (Yes, I know that Kuruman is less than 200 years old.) I wasn’t aware that that was how you went about settling a region.
Referencing God’s Word as a historical resource is more responsible than referencing man’s word because the Bible is based on reliable eyewitness accounts and not circular sources.
The Bible is a circular source. The Bible is the inerrant Word of God. How do we know that? Because He wrote it. How do we know that? Because the Bible says so. That’s the kind of thing that science avoids.