Science in Christian Perspective
PROBLEMS OF RADIOCARBON DATING AND OF CULTURAL DIFFUSION IN PRE-HISTORY
Edwin W. Yamauchi
From: JASA 27 (March 1975): 25-31.
Ronald D. Long's article, "A Revolution in Ancient Radiocarbon
Chronology,"[in this issue] presents some information which is both fascinating and
important for our understanding of prehistoric chronology. The author is to be
commended for his clear presentation of developments, which have hitherto been
presented only in technical journals or but cursorily reported in the secular
On the other hand, Long labors under certain presuppositions which seem to color his perception of scientific developments and which apparently threaten what he understands to be the biblical teaching with regard to the origin and the diffusion of agriculture and metallurgical technology.
It is quite unjust to charge scholars with "the indiscriminate use of radiocarbon determinations," since scholars who use these data are well aware of the problems of measurement, contamination, etc.2 To
Long labors under certain presuppositions which seem to color his perception of scientific developments and which apparently threaten what he understands to be the biblical teaching with regard to the origin and the diffusion of agriculture and metallurgical technology.
charge that "Archaeologists, and anthropologists possess the prerogative,
however dishonest, to declare an already preconceived chronology for an area as
established," is an unwarranted ad hominem attack. If anthropologists such
as Solheim wished to buttress their theories dishonestly, they could do this by
simply omitting any mention of discordant C-14 readings. Discordant readings are
to be expected because of the very nature of radiocarbon dating and its
limitations. This does not invalidate the use of such datings as long as these
limitations are recognized.
Long's citation of a remark by the Egyptologist, T. Save-Soderbergh, might lead readers to believe that scholars simply use radiocarbon dates only when these dates suit their preconceived theories. To be sure, this danger exists and some scholars may misuse radiocarbon readings.
Nonetheless, there is an impressive correlation of radiocarbon dates with the absolute chronology of the Egyptians, which was meticulously maintained.3 It should be noted that there is an apparent discrepancy between the Egyptian data and radiocarbon readings as one goes back in time before 2000 B.C.. Whereas Egyptian records date the beginning of the 1st Dynasty c. 3100 B.C.; radiocarbon dates for this dynasty are some four to five hundred years younger.4 These discrepancies, however, are explicable and can he corrected.
As Long himself explains, these variations can be correlated with changes in the earth's magnetic innment.5 On the basis of the new information from dendrochronology, i.e., the analysis of bristlecone pine tree-rings, it is possible to establish correction factors which succeed in achieving an excellent correlation of radiocarbon dates and Egyptian data.6 Renfrew himself points out that the new developments do not change the dates for Egypt: ". . . the calibrated carbon-14 dates for Egypt agree far better with the historical chronology than the uncalibrated ones did."7
Noting that more than 100 rings max' exist within an inch of the Pinus aristata, the long-lived Bristlecone pine, Long wonders "how very much accuracy is obtainable." He further remarks, "By some magical process, known only to a few, dendrochronologists claim to be able to join tree-rings from different trees for a stage chronology of growth in time." His main contention is that the Suess calibration curve derived from the California trees has no validity for European dates inasmuch as trees of similar longevity have not beet) discovered in Europe.
Dendroehronolegv is not a magical, arcane discipline. Magnification of the tree rings is a very simple matter. Nor is the correlation of patterns of signatures, i.e., sequenial arrangements of wide and narrow rings forming recognizable patterns, from different trees to obtain a series of overlapping plottings a mysterious process.8
As to the validity of the Suess calibration for Europe, Renfrew maintains:
Tests of nuclear weapons have shown that atmospheric mixing is rapid and that irregularities in composition are smoothed out after a few years. The California calibration should therefore hold for Europe. There is no need to assume that tree growth or tree rings are similar on the two continents, only that the atmospheric level of carbon 14 is the same at a given time.9
Support for the validity of the changes in the carbon 14 inventor as set forth by the deidroehronological data from bristlecone pines comes from correlations with varve chronologies, with deep ice cores, and with other methods of dating."10
The Diffusion of Agriculture
As Long notes, the earliest center for the development of the so-called Neolithic revolution-the transition from hunting and gathering to the domestication of plants and animals-seems to have been in the Near East. The earliest Neolithic site seems to he Jericho just north of the Dead Sea, a site dated to 7000 B.C.11 Neolithic stages of development at a slightly later date are in evidence at Jarmo on the hilly flanks of the Fertile Crescent12, and in south central Anatolia.13 About 6000 B.C. the Neolithic revolution reached Europe.14 The spread of agriculture from the Near Eastern center may he traced through the expanding distribution of einkorn and emmer wheat and of barley.15
These facts are beyond dispute. Long, however, labors under the assumption that the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals occurred
Dendrochronology is not a magical, arcane discipline.
only in one area. The basis for this assumption is Long's interpretation of the
early chapters of Genesis which provide him with definitive information on
"the origins and early progress of man's sojourn on this planet."
With these presuppositions in mind, Long is anxious to contest Cormao's claim that evidence from the Spirit Cave in Thailand also reveals the domestication of plants there c. 7000 ac. He further seeks to prove that the Arakan of Burma were driven out of India into coastal Burma and that the Miao-Yaou came into Laos and Thailand to a few years before 2205 ac., which Long would date to a few decades after the dispersion of the Tower of Babel.
But neither Gorman or Solheim make any claim that Neolithic techniques were diffused from Thailand throughout the world; they simply claim that the Neolithic revolution occurred very early in Thailand and then influenced developments in China. After all, the plants which were domesticated in Thailand were peas, beans, cucumbers and Chinese water chestnuts! The plants which were domesticated in the Near East were primarily wheat and barley.
Long does not deal with the issue of the development of agriculture in Mesoamerica, where the plants which were domesticated were pumpkins, peppers, and beaus." It is true that the domestication of plants in Mexico occurred at a relatively later date and played a very minor role for a long time. By 5000 ac. only 10% of the diet came from domesticated plants.17 Nonetheless the Neolithic revolution in America seems to have developed quite independently of Old World influence. Given the fact that men in many areas had been gathering domesticable plants and hunting domesticable animals for millennia, it should not be surprising at all to discover that the domestication of plants and animals was developed independently in several regions.
The author's attempts to demonstrate that various peoples migrated to Southeast Asia at a relatively late elate after the dispersal of mankind dated by him to the end of the 3rd millennium B.C., are misguided. When Long lauds Herman Iloeh's Compendium of World History, published by Ambassador College Press,"18 as "the most outstanding world prehistory outline," we are not inspired with confidence in his historiographical competence.
It should hardly be necessary to point out that Long's demonstration that
various groups migrated into Southeast Asia from China and elsewhere does not
disprove the existence of earlier indigenous populations.
The Diffusion of Metallurgy
As in the case of the development of agriculture, Long wishes to trace all examples of early metallurgy to a single point of origin. He therefore takes issue with Renfrew's new thesis in regard to the development of metallurgy in Europe.
We again discover that what Renfrew proposes and what Long suspects are quite distinct "animals." The former believes in multiple origins, and the latter is committed to diffusion from a single origin as an explanation for parallel phenomena. When Renfrew now asserts the priority of megalithic structures in western Europe and metallurgy in the Balkans he is denying the older theories of diffusion from the Near East in the first ease and from the Aegean in the second case. As he makes quite clear, he is not claiming that Europe provided the prototypes for developments in the Near East:
Nor is there any ease for turning the tables on the old diffiisionalists by suggesting that the early monuments
and innovations in Europe inspired the pyramids of Egypt or other achievements
in the Near East. That would merely he to reverse the arrows on the
map, and to miss the real lesson of the new dating.19
In actuality, the only point which Renfrew makes in regard to metallurgy is that it is now attested in the Balkans at an earlier date than in the Aegean area; Balkan metallurgy therefore cannot be derived from Greece as formerly maintained. Renfrew does not exclude the possibility of an ultimate derivation from the Near East: 'The possibility remains, however, that
Long's desire to defend the scriptural account against scientific interpretations which threaten to impugn the Bible is understandable, and from a Christian point of view commendable. But his tactics in achieving this end are short-sighted and self-defeating.
the art of metal-working was learned from the Near East, where it was known even
earlier than in the Balkans."20 In an earlier article Renfrew acknowledged
the priority of metallurgy in Anatolia and siesopotamia, and derived Aegean
metallurgy from these areas to the east.21
It is apparent that Long believes that the early chapters of Genesis provide us with a universal history which explains the ultimate origins of agriculture and of metallurgy. Although he does not believe that "exact geographical coordinates" are given for Eden,22 Mesopotamia is the center from which these arts were diffused throughout the world after the dispersion following the Tower of Babel incident.23 His assertion that Noah, Shem, and Nimrod are attested in historical accounts is unfortunately incorrect; his equation of Shem with a Tuitseh of a 16th century AD. document is simply fantastic.
The author concludes: "The Bible and history stand in agreement." His desire to defend the scriptural account against scientific interpretations which threaten to impugn the Bible is understandable, and from a Christian point of view commendable. But his tactics in achieving this end are short-sighted and self-defeating.
When there is an apparent discrepancy between the Bible and scientific
discoveries, it is possible to: 1) reject the Bible, as many non-Christian
scientists have done; 2) restructure science, as Whitcomb and Morris have done
with regard to the geological data and the Deluge. Long has chosen to impugn the
integrity of scholars using radio-carbon dates and dendrochronology.
A third possibility, which dues not seem to present itself to the author, is to acknowledge that our understanding of the Bible may need to he informed by scientific discoveries. Christians once thought that the Bible taught that the earth was the center of the universe. They feared that a heliocentric universe would undermine confidence in Gods Word. This fear has proven to be unfounded.
The demonstration that agriculture and metallurgy may have been independently discovered in areas outside the Near East does not threaten the accuracy of the Bible, properly understood. The Old Testament is rooted in the Near East; it does not profess to be a universal history; it does not tell us everything that happened in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
God and His Word are infallible. The human interpreters of the Bible are not.
1E.g., Time (Feb. 9, 1970), p. 66; (Nov. 29, 1971), p. 64.
2Cf. Harold Barker, "Radio Carbon Dating: Its Scope and Limitations," Antiquity, XXXII (1958), 253-63; Robert Stockenrath, Jr., "On the Care and Feeding of Radiocarbon Dates," Archaeology, XVIII.4 (1965), 277-81.
3Alan Cardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (Oxford, 1961).
4W. F. Libby, "The Accuracy of Radiocarbon Dates," Antiquity, XXXVII (1963), 213-19; Fl. S. Smith, "Egypt and C-14 Dating," Antiquity, XXXVIII (1964), 32-37.
5Cf. Vhclav Bocha, "Arcbacomagnetic Dating," in Henry N. Michael and Elizabeth K. Ralph (eds.), Dating Techniqnes for the Archaeologist (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), pp. 57-117.
6Elizabetb K. Ralph, "Carbon-14 Dating," in Michael and Elizabeth Ralph, pp. 28ff.; Robin M. Derricourt, "Radiocarbon Chronology for Egypt and North Africa," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, XXX (1971), 271-92.
7Colin Renfrew, "Carbon 14 and the Prehistory of Europe," Scientific American, CCXXV (Oct. 1971), 69.
8Henry N. Michael, "Climates, Tree Rings, and Archaeology," in Michael and Ralph, pp. 49-50.
9Rcnfrew, p. 69.
101. U. Olsson, ed., Radiocarbon Variations and Absolute Chronology (New York, 1970).
11Kathleen Kenyon, Digging Up Jericho (New York, 1957); "Jericho," Archaeology, XX.3 (1967), 268-75.
12Robert Braidwood, The Near East and the Foundations of Civilization (Eugene, Oregon, 1962).
l3James Mcllaart, Earliest Civilizations of the Near East (London, 1965).
14R:shert J. Rodden, "An Early Neolithic Village in Greece," Scientific American, CCXII (April, 1965), 82-92.
15Cf. Jack R. Harlan, "A Wild Wheat Harvest in Turkey," Archaeology, XX.3 (1967), 197-201.
l6Gordon R. WilIcy, "Mesoamerica," in Robert Braidsvood and Cordon R. Willey, eds., Courses Toward Urban Life (New York, 1962), pp. 88ff.
17Richard MacNeish, "The Origins of New World Civilizations," Scientific American, CCXI (Nov., 1964), 29-37.
180n Herbert W. Armstrong and Ambassador College, see Joseph M. Ilopkins, Christianity Today (Dec. 17, 1971), pp. 6-9.
19Renfrew, p. 72.
20Ibid., p. 70. There are clear links between the Balkans and Mesopotamia. The most startling evidences are the Tartaria clay tablets, associated with the early Vinca culture, discovered in the Transylvanian region of Romania. Cf. NI. S. F. Hood, "The Tartaria Tablets," Scientific American, CCXVIII (May, 1968), 30-37.
2lColin Rcnfrew, "Cycladic Metallurgy and the Aegean Early Bronze Age," American Journal of Archaeology, LXXI
22Two of the tour rivers associated with Eden, the Tigris and the Euphrates, are clearly in Mesopotamia. As Speiser points out, the Gihon river which encircles the land of Cush is to be associated with the area of the Kushu/Kasu or Kassites to the east of Mesopotamia and not with Cush, south of Egypt. E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, N. Y., 1964), p. 20.
23For a striking Sumerian parallel to the biblical passage, see S. N. Kramer, "The 'Babel of Tongues': A Sumerian Version," Journal of the American Oriental Society, LXXXVIII (1968), 108-11.