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An Analysis of the Creationist Film, Footprints in Stone
"Excellent filmvery stimulating," wrote one secondary school teacher from Converse, Texas. "Great. It is the best film that we have ever used in our science department," wrote another, from Adamsville, Tennessee. "The students were impressed with the findings and thoroughness of the research," wrote one from Youngstown, Ohio. "The film contains scientific information which should be made available to every high school student," wrote a Pelham, New Hampshire, teacher. "Very informative. Appreciated the fact that [the] film left open the subject for discussion instead of presenting only one side. Thank you for your efforts in enriching the curriculum by offering this film," wrote a teacher from Alexandria, Louisiana, one of the most enthusiastic educators.
These quotes are taken from the advertisement provided by Eden Films (Films for Christ Association, North Eden Road, Elmwood, Illinois) for their decade-old film on the Paluxy River tracks, Footprints in Stone. When a critic of the Paluxy River tracks asks for evidence, he or she is usually referred to this movie. The film rental is thirty dollars, but you can order it free of charge for showing in public secondary schools if your request is written on official school stationery.
The praises it has received are not all that surprising. In fact, Footprints in Stone is a seductive film, and even sophisticated anatomists may be temporarily fooled by it. The film makers are certainly confident that it will be positively received. In another brochure they boast:
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Early this year I rented a copy of the film and showed it at a special colloquium to an audience of approximately one hundred persons, including college undergraduates, graduate students, and several faculty (geologists, biologists, and anthropologists) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It became quickly apparent that no one was impressed. One physical anthropologist left halfway through the film; he later remarked that he found the movie to be terribly uninteresting and unconvincing. "If that's the best those creationists can do," he grumbled, "we needn't worry about their proselytizing efforts at all." Several of the students could not contain themselves from laughing derisively at the movie. One commented, "Why, even the filming techniques were amateurish." There was even a creationist in the audience who was left with the same doubtful opinion of the Paluxy "human" footprints. She even advised creationist Al Beeber to remove from the lecture-slide show on "scientific creationism," which he presented to our campus a month later, the slides on the Paluxy River "dinomen" on the grounds that the evidence was "no good."
I must admit that I was a bit surprised at the negative response the film drew. I had excluded my own classes, so as to avoid the possibility of the audience being previously "brainwashed" by my opinions. The showing of the film was publicly announced and opened to students outside the anthropology department. Local creationists were welcomed. Given this situation and given the enthusiastic response that the film had received elsewhere, one might have expected a different reaction.
Why, then, the dramatically negative response to Footprints in Stone?
Perhaps it was the fact that every time the film showed an alleged human footprint I stopped its motion, thus allowing the audience to examine the "man print." The "man prints" had been darkened, with either shellac or oil, making them look far more humanlike than they would have otherwise. Indeed, the "man prints" all but disappeared when we viewed the stopped close-ups, ignoring the superimposed outlines. In some cases we could see that the "man print" was only a portion of a larger impression, probably a print made by a dinosaur. In other cases the shellac seemed to connect erosional depressions. We could further imagine how easy it might be to find impressions on such a rough surface which could be painted in such a way as to reveal the outline of a "human" foot.
Such artistry became all the more obvious when the film makers showed the casts they had made of their "man prints." The plaster casts very clearly showed the outlines produced by the shellac; the toes were clearly demarcated and their outlines engraved. But these casts looked considerably more human than the original rock impressions from which they were drawn. One ingenious device used by creationists in this film was having barefoot children and adults place their feet on top of the plaster "replicas" and then move their feet back an inch to show the conformity between their toes and the "toes" darkened and outlined on the plaster casts. (One of my students later wrote to Eden Films to ask whether or not duplicates of their casts could be purchased for firsthand examination. The answer was "no, not yet." Why not yet?)
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The film does make a valid point: tracks, especially those made on soft substrates washed intermittently with water, may be quite variable in shape. The narrator, Reverend Stanley Taylor, points this out in order to explain the odd shapes assumed by his "man prints." He fails to note that the same is true of dinosaur footprints.
Walter Coombs, a vertebrate paleontologist who has studied dinosaur tracks from various localities, published a marvelous article on this subject in the March 1980 issue of Science. In it he shows that tridactyl (three-toed) dinosaurs made very different impressions, depending upon how deeply they sank into the muddy substrate and upon their mode of locomotionwhether walking over the ground or swimming over it, barely touching bottom.
Dr. Coombs, of Amherst College, and Dr. Neil Gomberg, a Brandeis University physical anthropologist with expertise on the anatomy of the primate foot, previewed the Footprints in Stone with me just prior to the colloquium. We saw no genuine human tracks (except those made by modern demonstrators). Coombs was able to confirm, however, that some of the "man prints" were genuinely organic (that is, nonerosional). These were, however, universally poor in detail. It is quite possible that, because wet mud had apparently washed back into portions of the original footprint upon withdrawal of the foot thus obscuring much of the detail, that we might never be able to tell which animal made them (though it is definite that some animal did). The film does not provide the necessary detail to study the matter further; the picture resolution is too poor.
It is fortunate that some Texas paleontologists have examined firsthand the Glen Rose tracks. Wann Langston, Jr., pointed out that some of the "man prints" have distinct claw marks emanating from what the creationists call their "heels." (The creationists apparently reversed the direction of travel for these critters.) Langston also noted that one of the most widely reproduced footprint photos of Paluxy man shows a portion of a poor print of a tridactyl dinosaur; this may be clear, however, only to someone who, having studied the anatomy of the dinosaur foot, knows what to look for. Milne makes the same point using photographs of in situ "man prints" taken directly from creationist literature. These "man prints" are nothing more than dinosaur toe impressions, selectively highlighted, with sand obscuring places where the rest of the dinosaur's foot might show. Milne also quotes Langston on the subject: "Langston mentions that the 'human' footprints of this formation often have the 'instep' along the outside edge of the foot, mentions a means by which a large clawed foot, withdrawn from mud, can leave a humanlike track, [and] mentions that some of the 'human' footprints show a large rear claw" (p. 241).
The existence of claw marks on some of the best series of "giant man prints" is now acknowledged by creationist John D. Morris, son of Henry Morris and author of Tracking Those Incredible Dinosaurs and the People Who Knew Them. This includes the McFall track, which is shown in Footprints in Stone. Since the film is advertised as a scientific documentary, shouldn't such an admission accompany the film upon its dissemination to public school teachers? One cannot see the claw marks in the film, because the McFall track is only shown at a distance.
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Even without good resolution, it is possible to tell that the "man prints" in the film are not genuine human footprints. Most noticeable is the fact that the stride-length/foot-length relationships are wrong for humans, especially for the "children's tracks." When the film makers pointed out "man tracks," they consistently took two or three, sometimes even four, steps between supposed right-left impressions. Conspicuously lacking was any discussion of stride, other than the assertion that the giant humans of the biblical past must have had long ones. But large distances separated supposed "normal human" footprints as well as "giant" (sixteen- to eighteen-inch) impressions. Perhaps their makers did not walk in a manner characteristic of modern humans!
The film features testimonials from Glen Rose old-timers, whose sincerity cannot be questioned. They had seen what they thought were human footprints; indeed, some were still selling tours of their "man prints" to tourists. But their descriptions of the size and stride of their best prints (now, alas, completely eroded) suggest that they had mistaken poor toe impressions of tridactyl dinosaurs for impressions of giant men. The fact that the "man prints" with clear claw marks are among those mistaken by these same people for "giant man prints" should discourage one from undue dependence upon the accuracy of their interpretations. Yet, they remain confident. One such old-timer, Jim Ryals, described his experience many years ago "diggin' up the left-hand foot" of a giant man print. "Shape of my own foot," he said. "It had good toes and it had a big toe." Ryals also knew of the carved "man prints" that had been sold to tourists, but this wasn't discussed in the film.
The story of the carved footprints begins during the Depression when the people of Glen Rose excavated dinosaur footprints from the Cretaceous beds in their backyards and fabricated additional specimens, some "manlike," to sell to tourists. Some of these were purchased by Jack Hill, who sold them in his two Indian curio shops, one in Lupten and the other in Gallup, New Mexico. It was a pair of giant manlike footprints exhibited in the window of Hill's Gallup shop that caught the eye of paleontologist Roland T. Bird. The end of an unrewarding fossil hunting season was nearing, and Bird was desperate for fresh prospects.
Upon first-hand examination of the prints, Bird recognized them as phonies and immediately told the store clerk, "I'm afraid your Jack Hill has found himself a pair of fake footprints." It was then that he learned of dinosaur footprints for sale in Jack Hill's other store in Lupten. Desperate as he was for leads, Bird drove to Lupten, only to be disappointed by more apparent fakes. But Bird was intrigued that these dinosaur footprints displayed minutely accurate anatomical details. While it was easy to imagine a stone artisan carving the likeness of a human footprint, it was difficult to imagine such a person replicating a dinosaur footprint without some genuine model to copy.
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Bird followed his hunch with further inquiries. He learned that the footprints were purchased in Glen Rose, Texas. Geological maps of the region rendered plausible the possibility of finding some actual specimens. So Roland T. Bird was off to the Paluxy River beds of Glen Rose.
As it turned out, it was a lucky lead. Bird closed his 1939 article in Natural History by thanking the unknown stone artisan for inadvertently leading him (and, in subsequent years, many thousands of visitors to New York's American Museum of Natural History) to genuine dinosaur footprints. Two "mysteries" remained unsolved: the identity of the stone artisan and the question of what had provoked the production of fake man prints. The local folk did, after all, talk about uncarved "man prints" in the area. Were they natural erosional depressions? Were they remnants of tracks made by some type of dinosaur? Was there a genuine reptile or amphibian with feet roughly similar in shape to those of humans? Bird never answered such questions (see footnote page 29). When he asked to see a "man print," he was shown only one rough fifteen-inch impression which was totally devoid of anatomical detail. From that he felt he could say nothing. In all his subsequent years of excavating and exploring this region (delightfully recorded in the pages of Natural History magazine in 1939, 1941, 1944, and 1945), he never reported seeing another. The matter of the "man tracks" and the stone artisans of the 1930s seemed destined to fade into history.
But Bird's first article on Glen Rose (1939) had caught the attention of a group of special creationists, including Clifford L. Burdick, a mining consultant who later became a central figure in the Creation Research Society and the Institute for Creation Research. Burdick tracked down the very fakes that Bird had exposed. But Burdick, who was no anatomist, was convinced they were genuine. Indeed, it was Burdick who began the assault on Bird which is so often repeated in creationist texts (most notably in those by Whitcomb and Morris, WilderSmith, Moore and Slusher, and Henry Morris).
Burdick first published his assault in an article entitled "When GIANTS Roamed the Earth" in the Seventh-day Adventists' Signs of the Times (July 25, 1950). Here he accused Bird of having been blinded by his evolutionary zeal and strong conviction that "no man ever existed in the age of reptiles" into rejecting the obviousthe contemporaneity of dinosaurs and man. "True science," Burdick wrote, "when divorced from evolution, gives powerful corroboration to the early history of man and the animal kingdom, as outlined in the Bible."
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The film Footprints in Stone espouses the same explanation of those "giant man prints" that it claims are genuine. Taylor even enlisted the help of two modern human giants. Burdick must have been saddened at the sight of his utopiaman: the Chicago giant had an abnormally short and uncharacteristic stride and clearly experienced a lot of difficulty supporting his weight on his rather large feet. His feet were nevertheless too small to "fit" one of the "man prints." The second giant "fit" this impression better; he suffered bad edema and probably couldn't stand without considerable pain. (He was shown seated in the film.)
Burdick must have been most disappointed when Taylor's film crew from Illinois insisted upon filming only those "man prints" in situ, leaving his prized specimens unmentioned. Indeed, when Burdick appears as expert witness in the film, he voices some dismay that "erosion has removed the detail of the toes." The new discoveries were not as clear as the prints that, he believed, had been removed from the site years before.
Stanley Taylor and his crew were wise to omit Burdick's "clear" specimens, however, because they are anatomically wrong (Godfrey) and are admitted forgeries (according to the testimony of local residents). They were also recently exposed by creationists from Loma Linda University (Zuidema; see also Weber, "Paluxy Man-The Creationist Piltdown," p. 16-22).
The film does present testimonials of purported experts who came to Glen Rose from all over the country to see the "man prints." These testimonials make a strong impression on most film audiences. There are some skeptics, but on the whole the overwhelming response is positive: the experts have seen the "man prints" with their own eyes.
Here is where the film is most dishonest. Stanley Taylor apparently had enough faith in his belief that he was looking at real human footprints that he confidently highlighted the less-obvious featurestoes, sometimes sides. However, he evidently did not have enough faith to invite to the scene a single vertebrate paleontologist, let alone a paleoichnologist (a specialist in studying tracks of extinct organisms). The film's "experts" included some well-known creationists; its skeptics were also creationists, but not young-earth advocates. The most enthusiastic testimonials came from Harold Slusher, Henry Morris, and Clifford L. Burdick.
The film is further dishonest in that it never mentions the extent to which the Cretaceous geologic strata at and around Glen Rose has been studied by paleontologists and the amount of remains of numerous species of reptiles and amphibians that have been discovered and described (for example, Langston). These strata simply do not contain a Cenozoic fauna.
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In short, the film is a distorted pseudodocumentary, which belongs in the realm of science fiction rather than science. I am too much of a realist to think that all audiences will view the film with the sophistication exhibited by those at the colloquium. In fact, I believe that it is impossible to see the distortions without halting the movie every time an alleged human footprint appears. The eye sees the human shapes that have been painted on stone. It is easy to fool the human eye. Just ask any Hollywood special-effects artist.
Although Bird never published these observations, he has left behind some indication that, by 1969, he had surmised what the old-timers had mistaken for human footprints. In a letter to creationist Mike Turnage, dated February 21, 1969, Bird wrote:
John Morris, in Tracking Those Incredible Dinosaurs: And the People Who Knew Them, page 93, cites these words in an effort to discredit Bird.
Bird, Roland T. 1939. "Thunder in His Footsteps." Natural History. 43:5:254-261,
Burdick, Clifford L. July 25, 1950. "When GIANTS Roamed the Earth." Signs of the Times, pp. 6, 9.
Coombs, Walter, P., Jr. March 1980. "Swimming Ability of Carnivorous Dinosaurs." Science. 207:1198-1200.
Godfrey, Laurie R. (in prep.) "Men and Dragons: The Paluxy River Footprint Hoax." Scientists Confront Creationism. New York: W. W. Norton.
Langston, Warm, Jr. April 1974. "Nonmammalian Comanchean Tetrapods." Geoscience and Man. 8:77-102.
Milne, David H. May 1981. "How to Debate With Creationists-and 'Win.' " The American Biology Teacher. 43:5:235-245, 266.
Moore, John N., and Slusher, Harold S. (editors) 1974. Biology: A Search for Order in Complexity. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
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Morris, John D. 1980. Tracking Those Incredible Dinosaurs: And the People Who Knew Them. San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers.
Morris, Henry M. (editor) 1974. Scientific Creationism. Public-School Edition. San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers.
Whitcomb, John C., Jr. and Morris, Henry M. 1968. The Genesis Flood. Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.
Wilder-Smith, A. E. 1968. Man's Origin, Man's Destiny. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, Publisher. See also revised edition: Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975.
Zuidema, Henry P. May/June 1979. "Creationist Scientists Discount 'Giant Men' Stories." Liberty.