Fire at Wonderwerk Cave

Finally, an article by Mr Thomas on the Wonderwerk Cave controlled fire discovery: Humans Used Fire Earlier Than Believed.

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.

They were not, however, quite this ambitious

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.

8 thoughts on “Fire at Wonderwerk Cave

  1. On 7 April in their News to Note, AiG wrote:
    “The million-year date ascribed to the burned debris was obtained by integrating paleomagnetic data and cosmogenic isotopic (26Al/10Be) ratios measured outside the cave in recent years.12 The latter measurements are based on decay of beryllium-10 and aluminum-26 isotopes formed in sand exposed to cosmic radiation. Magnetic field reversals are thought to affect the rate of isotope formation, allowing magnetic and isotope data to be integrated. (Decreased magnetic field intensity during reversal would allow more cosmic rays to reach earth causing an increase in isotope production.)

    Paleomagnetic reversals are conventionally thought to indicate long ages based on the assumed long age of the earth. Creationist physicist Dr. Russ Humphreys has proposed, however, that convection currents in the core of the earth—affected by Flood-associated tectonic shifts—reversed earth’s magnetic field every few weeks during the global Flood.13 Subsequent research has documented analogous rapid magnetic field reversals in thin layers of cooled lava.14 Thus paleomagnetic dating is unreliable because magnetic reversals can occur rapidly and likely did so during the global Flood.

    Furthermore, many factors can affect the geochemical cycling of these isotopes, including altered production rate due to magnetic reversals and other causes, changes in atmospheric circulation of the isotopes, and changes in precipitation.15 Thus these dating methods, singly and together, suffer from the usual problems with unverifiable assumptions that haunt other radiometric dating methods. In particular, the global Flood very likely affected the calibration of at least one of the parameters in a dramatic way for which observable geology has provided an analogous model. Without the million-year date, these findings become merely confirmation that early humans knew how to cook.

    Homo erectus was fully human and, like Neanderthals and early modern humans, had smaller teeth than apes’ teeth. Intelligent descendants of people scattered from the tower of Babel, they would all know how to cook. There is no proof cooking enabled “hominins” to evolve bigger, better brains. Brain size is not linked to human intelligence, so the fact that Homo erectus had cranial capacity on the small end of human average and Neanderthals had cranial capacity on the large end fails to show an ascending human evolutionary path. Nothing in the study supports the concept of human evolution from brutish or ape-like ancestors.

    On the other hand, the historical accounts in the Bible shed light on the post-Flood Ice Age and the dispersion of Noah’s descendants from Babel, showing how human fossils like Homo erectus fit the biblical picture. Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and Denisovans appear in the Pleistocene rock layers as do extinct Ice Age animals. While Genesis does not offer the details of the post-Flood climate change, the natural result of the global Flood was the Ice Age that affected so much of our world for hundreds of years. People migrating from Babel had to cope with those climate changes and probably used caves for shelter and to bury their dead.

    Homo erectus fossils, with “large brow ridges, small chins, and receding foreheads”16 along with their characteristic tools are preserved near Babel in the Lower and Middle Pleistocene layers of East Africa and Central Asia. Homo erectus fossils also appear farther from Babel in Upper Pleistocene layers along with other varieties of people, such as Neanderthals and the very short Homo floresiensis of Indonesia. Yet the fossil record does not preserve further record of these members of the human race after the Ice Age, suggesting they ultimately succumbed. Without DNA from Homo erectus we cannot document whether they live on in modern humans as do Neanderthals, but there is no reason to doubt their humanity or their intelligence—or to suppose they were evolving quasi-humans whose humanity depended on newly acquired culinary skills.”

    I didn’t contact them as I was unfamiliar with the dating method used.

    • For magnetic field reversals, see here:

      “Intelligent descendants of people scattered from the tower of Babel, they would all know how to cook.” Well what about the ones that we know did not?

      “the natural result of the global Flood was the Ice Age that affected so much of our world for hundreds of years.” Nope:

      “Brain size is not linked to human intelligence, so the fact that Homo erectus had cranial capacity on the small end of human average and Neanderthals had cranial capacity on the large end fails to show an ascending human evolutionary path.” See the numbers at wikipedia:

      “Homo erectus fossils, with “large brow ridges, small chins, and receding foreheads”16 along with their characteristic tools are preserved near Babel in the Lower and Middle Pleistocene layers of East Africa and Central Asia.” Creationists should actually attack the concept of a tool culture, as it is rather a thorn in their side (see the dating discussion in my post), though it’s probably too well supported for them to be able to easily do so.

      Will that do? (And you’re allowed to post the link, you know.)

    • Thanks (I have to type URLs from scratch, as Cut and Paste seems only to work for text within URLs).

      To clarify, it was the dating by ‘micromorphological and Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy (mFTIR) analyses’ that was a new one on me. This was mentioned at the following link (footnote 8 in the article, explaining where the estimated date of 1 million years came from) in the following sentence:
      “High-tech “microstratigraphic” analysis of sediment excavated 30 meters inside the cave entrance provided “unambiguous evidence in the form of burned bone and ashed plant remains that burning events took place in Wonderwerk Cave during the early Acheulean [Homo erectus] occupation, approximately 1.0 Ma,” write the investigators in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”.
      See the Abstract at

    • They can do anything with Fourier transforms these days… (I don’t actually know anything about it). An important part of their evidence, however, was looking very closely at the strata to ensure that they were correct in interpreting it as meaning that a controlled fire occurred there and not, say, repeated wildfires.

  2. Out of curiosity I went over to ICR and searched the word “fits.” There were hundreds of examples of how “x fits creationism.” Yet “x fits evolution” is apparently a bias.

    Double standard much?

    Also, I went into the supporting information of the article which normally often contains chronological results that were rejected along with why they were rejected (if it wasn’t mentioned in the main body of the text). There was no mention of such rejection, but they did say a lot of the dates came from a previous study (Reconstructing the history
    of sediment deposition in caves: A case study from Wonderwerk Cave.)

    For some reason my university subscription doesn’t extend to that journal so I can only read the abstract. It notes that some of the results were anomalous, but they figured out what was causing it and so were able to correct for it. They then looked at the magnetic reversals and found they aligned with the corrected dates, further confirming their accuracy.

    Does that count as discarding dates they disagree with? I don’t know, on the one hand they are discarding dates they disagree with. On the other hand they disagree with them because they are wrong.

  3. Also, I do like habitation sites because their stratigraphy can’t just be explained as the flood. It amuses me to watch creationists admitting stratigraphy works and trying to use it.

    “Oh there’s no discernible difference between habitation sites and sites I claim were deposited during the flood so stratigraphy should be applied to both? LALALALA can’t hear you”


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