What are “polystrate” fossils, and what is their significance in the creation/evolution controversy?
To the man on the street, one of the most impressive arguments for an ancient Earth is the testimony of sedimentary-rock layers (many of which are thousands of feet thick) strewn around the planet. Scientists (and park rangers) subject us to examples like the Grand Canyon and present their spiel so effectively that—as we observe layer after layer of sedimentary rocks piled one on top of another—the only explanation seems to be that vast amounts of geologic time must have been involved. Each division of the rocks, we are told, represents a time that long since has passed, and an ancient world that long since has ceased to exist. Creationists, however, beg to differ, and suggest that a closer look at the “record of the rocks” suggests youth, not antiquity, for our home planet.
Embedded in sedimentary rocks all over the globe are what are known as “polystrate” (or polystratic) fossils. [N.A. Rupke, a young geologist from the State University of Groningen in the Netherlands, first coined the term “polystrate fossils” (see Morris, 1970, p. 102).] Polystrate means “many layers,” and refers to fossils that cut through at least two sedimentary-rock layers. Henry Morris discussed polystrate fossils in his book, Biblical Cosmology and Modern Science, where he first explained the process of stratification.
Stratification (or layered sequence) is a universal characteristic of sedimentary rocks. A stratum of sediment is formed by deposition under essentially continuous and uniform hydraulic conditions. When the sedimentation stops for a while before another period of deposition, the new stratum will be visibly distinguishable from the earlier by a stratification line (actually a surface). Distinct strata also result when there is a change in the velocity of flow or other hydraulic characteristics. Sedimentary beds as now found are typically composed of many “strata,” and it is in such beds that most fossils are found (1970, p. 101, parenthetical items in orig.).
Morris then went on to explain that “large fossils...are found which extend through several strata, often 20 feet or more in thickness” (p. 102). Ken Ham has noted: “There are a number of places on the earth where fossils actually penetrate more than one layer of rock. These are called ‘polystrate fossils’ ” (2000, p. 138). Such phenomena clearly violate the idea of a gradually accumulated geologic column since, generally speaking, an evolutionary overview of that column suggests that each stratum (layer) was laid down over thousands (or even millions!) of years. Yet as Scott Huse remarked in his book, The Collapse of Evolution:
Polystratic trees are fossil trees that extend through several layers of strata, often twenty feet or more in length. There is no doubt that this type of fossil was formed relatively quickly; otherwise it would have decomposed while waiting for strata to slowly accumulate around it (1997, p. 96).
Probably the most widely recognized of the polystrate fossils are tree trunks that extend vertically through two, three, four or more sections of rock—rock that supposedly was deposited during vast epochs of time. However, organic material (like wood) that is exposed to the elements will rot, not fossilize. Thus, the entire length of these tree trunks must have been preserved very quickly, which suggests that the sedimentary layers surrounding them must have been deposited rapidly—possibly (and likely) during a single catastrophe (see Ham, 2000, p. 138). As Leonard Brand explained, even if the trees had been removed from oxygen, “anaerobic bacteria cause decay unless the specimens are buried rapidly” (1997, p. 240). Consequently, it is irrational to conclude from such evidence that these formations built up slowly over millions of years. The logical explanation for such formations is that they must have been formed quickly under cataclysmic conditions. Ken Ham has observed: “For example, at the Joggins, in Nova Scotia, there are many erect fossil trees that are scattered throughout 2,500 feet of layers. You can actually see these fossil trees, which are beautifully preserved, penetrate through layers that were supposedly laid down over millions of years” (p. 138). In what surely must be a classic case of understatement, Rupke wrote concerning the Joggins polystrate fossils: “Only a wholly uncommon process of sedimentation can account for conditions like these” (1973, p. 154). [For reviews of the Joggins polystrate fossils, see: Corliss, 1990, pp. 254-256; Rupke, 1973, p. 154.] In other words, these erect fossil trees required a speedy burial to be preserved fully. What better evidence for a catastrophic event than trees fossilized in an upright position and traversing multiple layers of the geologic column? As Paul Ackerman remarked, the polystratic tree trunks “constitute a sort of frozen time clock from the past, indicating that terrible things occurred—not over millions of years but very quickly” (1986, p. 84).
This type of phenomenon is not an isolated one. Rupke wrote about “a lofty trunk, exposed in a sandstone quarry near Edinburgh [Scotland], which measured no less than 25 meters and, intersecting 10 or 12 different strata, leaned at an angle of about 40°” (1973, p. 154). Thus, this particular tree must have been buried while falling down! In fact, one scientist who examined the tree, George Fairholme, commented on the fact that an inclined trunk constitutes a much stronger testimony for rapidity in deposition than an upright one because
...while the latter might be supposed to have been capable of retaining an upright position, in a semi-fluid mass, for a long time, by the mere laws of gravity, the other must, by the very same laws, have fallen, from its inclined to a horizontal position, had it not been retained in its inclined position by the rapid accumulation of its present stony matrix (1837, p. 394, emp. added).
In his book, The Creation-Evolution Controversy, R.L. Wysong presented a photograph of another extremely unusual polystrate tree. The caption underneath the photograph read:
This fossil tree penetrates a visible distance of ten feet through volcanic sandstone of the Clarno formation in Oregon. Potassium-Argon dating of the nearby John Day formation suggests that 1,000 feet of rock was deposited over a period of about seven million years or, in other words, at the rate of the thickness of this page annually! However, catastrophic burial must have formed the rock and caused the fossilization, otherwise the tree would have rotted and collapsed (1976, p. 366; see Nevins, 1974, 10:191-207 for additional details).
After discussing the effects of the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, Trevor Major commented: “...upright tree stumps found in many coal beds represent, not the remains of trees growing in a peat swamp, but the effects of a flood or similar disaster” (1996, p. 16). William J. Fritz, an evolutionist, recognized the phenomenon in fossilized trees at Yellowstone National Park and stated: “I do not think that entire Eocene forests were preserved in situ [in place—JD/BT] even though some upright trees apparently were preserved where they grew (1980a, p. 313, emp. added). In another article published the same year in the same scientific journal, Fritz wrote:
Deposits of recent mud flows on Mount St. Helens demonstrate conclusively that stumps can be transported and deposited upright. These observations support conclusions that some vertical trees in the Yellowstone “fossil forests” were transported in a geologic situation directly comparable to that of Mount St. Helens (1980b, p. 588, emp. added).
Evolutionary uniformitarianism would have us believe that the same processes going on in nature today have formed the Earth—as opposed to large-scale catastrophes (like, for example, the Flood of Noah recorded in Genesis 6-8). However, in light of the evidence from polystrate fossils, creationists believe that just the opposite is true. Some scientists have suggested that the fossil forests in Yellowstone may have been transported by geologic and/or volcanic activity possibly associated with the Noahic flood (see: Brand, 1997, p. 69; Roth, 1998, p. 246). Furthermore, as Morris and Parker have discussed in their book, What is Creation Science?:
Polystrates are especially common in coal formations. For years and years, students have been taught that coal represents the remains of swamp plants slowly accumulated as peat and then even more slowly changed into coal (1987, p. 168).
If polystrate fossils must form quickly in order to be preserved, and if (as many evolutionists believe) coal has been formed over periods lasting millions of years, how could there be so many (or any!) polystrate fossils in coal veins? The answer, of course, is that the evolutionary scenario requiring vast eons of time for the origin of coal (and, for that matter, oil) is wrong. Yet tree trunks are not the only representatives of polystrate fossils. Even animals’ bodies form polystrate fossils (like catfish in the Green River Formation in Wyoming—see Morris, 1994, p. 102).
After Dr. Rupke (who, remember, coined the term “polystrate fossils”) cited numerous examples of polystrate fossils (1973, pp. 152- 157), he concluded: “Nowadays, most geologists uphold a uniform process of sedimentation during the earth’s history; but their views are contradicted by plain facts” (p. 157, emp. added). Contradicted by plain facts indeed! Rupke then wrote: “Personally, I am of the opinion that the polystrate fossils constitute a crucial phenomenon both to the actuality and the mechanism of a cataclysmal deposition” (1973, p. 157). What “cataclysmal deposition” could have produced the types, and numbers, of polystrate fossils that have been discovered around the globe? How about the Noahic flood?
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Austin, Steven (1994), Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe (El Cajon, CA: Institute for Creation Research).
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