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Tracking Those Incredible Creationists
As a Texan living close to Glen Rose, I have had the opportunity to observe ongoing creationist fieldwork practically in my own back yard. I have visited the sites of "mantrack" claims in this area more than forty times in a little over two years (with my high school students, with professional colleagues, with my family, and alone). From the time in 1982 when the Reverend Carl Baugh began looking for fresh mantracks on the McFall property using jackhammers, backhoes, and crow bars, I have been able to observe his work in progress, speak with him and his fellow excavators, and interview people visiting the site. I have often been on the scene during excavation, or soon afterwards, to see newly exposed footprints (as were Cole, Godfrey, Schafersman, and others in August 1982 and June 1983, and Schafersman at other times). But, though I have been shown the "best" of the mantracks by Baugh and his colleagues, I have yet to see anything that is convincing.
Often I have raised questions about these mantracks, but answers to my questions have shifted like sand dunes, with separate creationist observers not corroborating each other very well, and even the same informants, including Baugh, changing their responses from month to month. Baugh was initially a gracious host, but as my skepticism became apparent he became less and less willing to share information, and more and more defensive. Nonetheless, his initial hospitality provided me with a good overview of the details of his claims. My observations benefited from access to his opinions and assertions until our relationship gradually cooled.
What follows is a brief combination of ethnography and analysis based upon my acquaintance with Glen Rose creationist excavations from 1982 to the present.
An Investigative Chronology
June 16, 1982.
Three students (Burl Barr, Steve Weldon, and Ron Watkins) and I visited the McFall site to observe and videotape Carl Baugh's excavations, as did television crews from Ft. Worth and Dallas who had been invited to witness the discovery of "twenty-four Tyrannosaurus prints" and a variable number of "new manprints." We also visited the Park ledge in Dinosaur Valley State Park to observe and videotape the alleged mantracks there.
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At the McFall site, Clifford Wilson, an Australian archaeologist now with the Institute for Creation Research, was on hand to help identify "genuine" human tracks. A group of volunteers there provided the muscle power necessary for the excavation.
During this 1982 excavation, Baugh claimed to have discovered not only Cretaceous human footprints, but also a human handprint with clear thumb impression, a footprint made by a human slipping in the mud, saber-toothed tiger tracks, and unfossilized wood embedded in the same limestone that contained the dinosaur tracks.
Ignoring the priority rules of geological and taxonomic nomenclature, Baugh named the exposed layer of limestone the "Wilsonian Strata" in honor of Clifford Wilson, and he said he named the "man" who left the "mantracks" "Humanus Bauanthropus" in honor of a Fijiian hero, Caka(m')bau. A bronze plaque naming Humanus Bauanthropus was placed at the site; it also included the date, the sponsors (International Baptist College and Grace Baptist Temple of Duncanville, TX), and a Biblical reference (Job 40:15).
The quality of this excavation was compromised by its single-minded interest in discovering human traces. But, despite the inexperience of the volunteer crew, this crew sometimes took more care to avoid sloppy technique than did Baugh himself. I overheard one volunteer express concern that he may have altered the shape of the track he had been clearing of clay with a hand pick; Baugh replied "If it is a dinosaur print, don't worry about it."
Conclusions hastily drawn and publicly announced were sometimes just as hastily altered. The piece of "wood," for example, later became simply "fibrous material" after it was sectioned. (Actually it was a natural iron oxide deposit.)
After the reporters left, the McFall excavation assumed many of the characteristics of an old-time riverside camp meeting. Mere presence on the site was described as a "blessing." When my students tried to discuss the findings with volunteers, the conversation of the volunteers quickly devolved into a discussion of personal religious beliefs. In this evangelical witnessing we heard far more about the merits of Christian fundamentalism and the evils of disbelief than we did about the human footprints as evidence against evolution. The volunteers were intent upon saving our souls.
The expected television coverage of the day's work turned out to be minimal, but Baugh's sensational discoveries were later featured in the Bible-Science Newsletter (Bartz, 1982a,b).
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August 19-21, 1982.
Laurie Godfrey, John Cole, Steven Schafersman, and I met to study the alleged human footprints at various sites. We visited Dinosaur Valley State Park with Lee Mansfield, paleontology graduate student and former Park guide. At the McFall site, we observed trackways that had been exposed by Baugh's team only days before and interviewed members of Baugh's team who happened to be at the site and who explained the latest discoveries. We measured and photographed features and videotaped our work.
I could see that the creationists had expanded their efforts at the McFall site since June. But I noticed that some of the shallow dinosaur prints exposed in June were now destroyed, not so much by weathering as by digging and by debris from nearby "human" prints being dumped on them. Features being carefully protected in June were obviously abandoned by August. The creationists' excavations had exposed some genuine dinosaur prints whose quality and paleontological value exceeded most of the accessible dinosaur prints in the state park, yet the creationists clearly were not impressed with them. Only dinosaur prints adjacent to "human" prints were sealed with plastic in an attempt to preserve them from erosion. But, even in these cases, preservation was haphazard and amateurish. Little attention seemed to be paid to the problem of river pollution or obstruction as excavation debris were shoved over the edge of the bank and into the river.
August 23, 1982.
I could not be present when Laurie Godfrey, John Cole, and Steven Schafersman visited the Thayer site in Canyon Lake, Texas near New Braunfels. They measured and photographed dinosaur trackways, alleged mantracks, and "wheel tracks."
October 20, 1982.
Attorney Fred Weldon and I met Carl Baugh on the McFall site and videotaped his claims concerning a variety of issues. During this taping, Baugh contradicted his own earlier reports of the locations of key discoveriesthe "handprint," for example, had moved a half meter or more. When I pointed out this discrepancy, Baugh merely insisted that his latest placement was right. He did not produce horizontal plan maps which would have resolved such questions; I had not observed them being made at the site nor had I seen vertical profiles being drawn.
When confronted with the fact that the marks he called human lacked characteristics of human footprints, Baugh strongly disagreed. He could identify toes on particular tracks where we could not; he pointed out pock-marks at the "forward" end of tracks. However, almost identical uneven depressions could typically be seen all around each track and within each, and, in fact, randomly all over the bedrock exposure. When questioned further, he blamed erosion for obliterating the original "perfect" human proportions and features, saying, "You should have been here at the moment of exposure." Anatomical details were said to fade within hours.
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But when he showed me a photograph of his "best" human footprint, freshly exposed and in pristine condition, it turned out to be a photograph not of a human footprint but of Thalassinoides trace fossilscasts of burrows made by a shrimp-like animal in Cretaceous times. Parallel burrow cast ridges had clearly been mistaken for toes. But, convinced he was right, Baugh cited other mantracks that were "even better," but were "unfortunately" lost to erosion. (Why were there no clear photographs, plan-maps, and videotapes?) I could see that, no matter how easy it was for me to explain the true nature of each successive "best" manprint, tales of "even better" evidence would never cease.
Baugh had a cigar box which he said contained the best evidence yet discovered against the geologic time tablea hammer that had been found by other investigators in 1934 near London, Texas. It was an iron miner's hammer with a wooden handle, and it had been embedded in Ordovician (roughly 500 million year-old) rock. Baugh believes it to be of the same age as the Ordovician beds, thus proving that "Ordovician" is Iron Age, and that Ordovician and post-Ordovician creatures were contemporaries of humans. (Actually the hammer is not Iron Age but nineteenth century; it was clearly a lost or discarded miner's mallet that had fallen into a crack in Ordovician rock and was subsequently sealed in a concretion formed from minerals leaching out of the bedrock. I have repeatedly suggested to Baugh that he radiocarbon date the hammer handle, and he has seemed willing but has not done so.)
Steven Schafersman and I just missed meeting Baugh on the site. We met and interviewed creationist Don Garrett and uncovered glaring discrepancies in the claims of major participants in the creationist excavations. For example, Baugh had, on October 20, pointed out some "human" prints that he said were exceedingly clear when first exposed by Don Garrett and himself. But now, Garrett admitted seeing them only weeks after they had been exposed, and could not, therefore, corroborate Baugh's story that they were far "better" when first discovered.
May 7, 1983.
Steven Schafersman, Frederick Edwords, other interested parties, and I visited various sites in the Glen Rose area. At the McFall site, we discovered freshly exposed tracks that had probably been worked on only a day or two before. We could see that the creationists had attempted to make casts of some tracks. The features of these tracks (actually distorted three-toed dinosaur footprints) were obscured by the sloppy casting procedures used. River mud was sealed into the bottom of the prints by liquid plastic before the plaster of Paris was poured into the tracks. Trash from this work was left lying about. Edwords extensively photographed this new excavation while I made a videotape record.
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Later in the day we learned of Baugh's plans to build a multi-million dollar creationist museum in the Glen Rose area. The information was on a flyer which said, in part, that the museum displays would include excavated human and dinosaur footprints from the area, a man-made iron hammer which was found in 500 million-year-old rock, a mastodon fossil, a replica of Noah's ark, a flume that would simulate the forces of Noah's Flood, as well as a stone wall "the exact size of Noah's ark." The flyer solicited funds to build the museum, promising a bronze plaque to those who contributed more than $100. Various donor categories were outlined, up to $10,000.
May 8, 1983.
Steven Schafersman, Frederick Edwords, other interested parties, and I visited the Thayer site. In addition to the many dinosaur trackways on the property, Helen Thayer pointed out the recent discovery of "dinosaur bones, probably from an Ankylosaurus" and examples of "petrified dinosaur hide." But various individuals in our group were able to identify this material as cave deposits and other rocks. Helen Thayer was perturbed at these revelations, but still pointed out two new "probable human footprints," one that she said had recently been confirmed as human by an unnamed foot doctor. (Both were merely erosional features.) We videotaped and photographed these new discoveries as well as earlier discoveries of other "human" footprints and "wheel tracks."
June 3-6, 1983.
Laurie Godfrey, John Cole, Steven Schafersman, Pia Nicolini, and I met to begin production on the video documentary, The Case of the Texas Footprints (Cole, 1984). This would be based upon the previous year's fieldwork as well as upon new field observations by the same team of scientists, and would replace the amateur video documentary Footprints in the Mind (Hastings, 1982) that I had previously prepared.
By this time, the creationists had become aware of growing scientific scrutiny of their work. Analyses of creationist fieldwork claims had reached the public through the writings of Turner (1982), Edwords, Milne and Schafersman, Schafersman, and Stansfield (all 1983), as well as through my 1982 video documentary, and creation-evolution debates held in May 1983 in Dallas, Texas (Schafersman and Edwords vs. Geisler and Anderson) and Oberlin, Ohio (Edwords vs. Gish). This sort of information had caused some local reporters, such as Mary Barrineau of Westward magazine, to show more skepticism. Barrineau's article, featuring interviews with Cole, Schafersman, and me, as well as Baugh, would appear on July 24. Baugh was not accustomed to critical reporting, and he became increasingly defensive when I visited him through June.
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June 16, 18, 25, 29, and July 1, 1983.
I made multiple visits to the McFall site, sometimes accompanied by Steven Schafersman. On June 18, I met with creationists Gerhard Nickel and John DeVilbiss, advisors to Baugh. Nickel, a high school geology teacher from Newton, Kansas, had cautioned Baugh against declaring featureless and/or eroded depressions human in origin. DeVilbiss, an oil company research geophysicist, was there to do volume measurements of the dinosaur and "human" prints, but he seemed dubious about calling what he observed human. However, both Nickel and De Vilbiss appeared confident that better finds would be made in the future.
On June 25, Schafersman and I interviewed creationist Russell Bixler of WPCB-TV, Channel 40, a Pittsburgh Christian television station. In anticipation of the discovery of notable manprints, he had arrived to aid excavations and to set up television coverage.
Late in June, creationist Clifford Burdick arrived on the scene. Burdick was a human footprint advocate as far back as the 1940s, and a storehouse of recollections concerning "human footprint" sites along the Paluxy. His participation provided a link between contemporary arguments and those of three and four decades ago. On June 29, I met with Baugh and Burdick. On July 1, Schafersman and I met with Bixler, Burdick, and Baugh.
By then, Baugh was openly hostile to us. When Schafersman interviewed him, Baugh only allowed Schafersman to see and photograph his famous hammer in a concretion. He refused to show either of us any manprints, and he refused to show us the moment-of-exposure photographs he said were only a few meters away in his car.
During our meetings, Nickel, Bixler, and Baugh responded to the published criticisms of their mantrack interpretations with unfounded accusations, impugning their critics' motives and abilities. They seemed especially irked by William D. Stansfield's letter to Scientific American (1983) that reported conclusions previously published in Creation/Evolution (Godfrey, 1981) as well as additional information based on personal communication with Laurie Godfrey. Bixler and Baugh were outraged by Frederick Edwords' column in the March-April 1983 issue of The Humanist and both were also angered by my video documentary Footprints in the Mind. When pressed, however, it turned out that neither of them had seen Footprints in the Mind, but were merely echoing the sentiments of Hilton Hinderleiter of the physics faculty at Pennsylvania State University (cf. Hinderliter, 1984a,b).
The excavation work that involved all these people only uncovered one "human" sliding print, which was no more convincing than previous printsi.e., devoid of any human anatomical characteristicsand half of an equally unconvincing manprint on a nearby ledge.
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December 30, 1983.
My son Dan and I attended the Bible-Science Association meeting at Glen Rose which featured Carl Baugh, Clifford Burdick, Walter Lang, and other leading creationists. I learned that Footprints in the Mind had been part of the program, and I was amused at the rumor that the ACLU had financed its production (which was not true). While Baugh supervised more excavation at the McFall site, I was engaged in a lively but frustrating discussion with Walter Lang, Bill Overn, and Ker Thompson, in which they evaded testable issues and questions.
By now it was obvious that the Bible-Science Association and Baugh's project had developed a close relationship. I was shown nothing more than the featureless and poorly cleaned depressions of the type I had seen before, and no new sensational print finds were being claimed. More excitement seemed to be generated by human bones (the "Moab skeleton" from Utah), which Baugh had on display at the meeting hall, but which I was not allowed to inspect closely. It was claimed that the bones were found in Cretaceous deposits. That evening Overn gave a talk on how to disbelieve radioisotope dating, while beside me in the audience Clifford Burdick nodded off to sleep.
January 21, 1984.
Gayle Golden (science writer for The Dallas Morning News), Steven Schafersman, and I met at Glen Rose for an interview toward her subsequent article on Baugh's work. No more excavation had been done at the McFall site since the winter meeting. Later Golden was able to view videotapes on manprint claims, including The Case of the Texas Footprints. Golden reported that Baugh had paid $10,000 for his Moab skeleton and confirmed that Baugh knew at their purchase that the bones had already been dated at 200-300 years.
April 13, 1984.
A class of my students and I embarked upon a field trip to Glen Rose to look at the mantrack sites of the area. The McFall site was eroded and most of the depressions were covered with silt and dried mud, but work had started on the Creation Evidences Museum.
May 5-6, 1984.
Paleontologist and ichnologist Jim Farlow of Purdue University, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, brought a research team to Texas to gather data on dinosaur trails, including several in the Glen Rose area. Steven Schafersman and I met him in the State Park and traveled with his group to various sites, including the McFall site. Schafersman and I acquainted Farlow with the background of the manprint claims, and Farlow confirmed previous conclusions made by our team concerning mud-distorted or eroded dinosaur prints. Although Baugh was not present, John DeVilbiss was. DeVilbiss now seemed as critical as we were of the alleged manprints so far uncovered, yet he continued, without any evidence, to assume that real manprints were somewhere present.
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Farlow showed us evidence that claims about Baugh's Moab skeleton originated in 1975 when Clifford Burdick believed inaccurate reports on the bones' find by magazine writer F. A. Barnes. No one associated with the find had ever claimed they were part of a Cretaceous layer, as Barnes erroneously reported. Rather, they were intrusive into the Cretaceous rock layer.
July 29-August 26, 1984.
Over a month's time I made eleven trips to Glen Rose collecting molds from which I made casts of all the footprints comprising the Taylor Trail (of Footprints in Stone fame) just downstream, mid-river, from the McFall site. Although some creationists have rejected Baugh's manprint claims, most still cite the Taylor prints as genuinely human, albeit normally inaccessible due to the river's depth. My idea to use an oil-base clay so I could make molds even under water seemed to work and gave me faithful casts. By the end of August severe drought left the Taylor site "high and dry" for the first time in several years. Now the trail was uniquely and directly accessible and I was able to measure and map the whole of it.
During early August, a summer seminar of classes and diggings were conducted by Baugh and Lang at Glen Rose, again under the auspices of the Bible-Science Association. Baugh's Creation Evidences Museum, now open in a small cabin, displayed among other things, Baugh's casts of "footprints" and "handprints" of "Humanus Bauanthropus," the hammer-in-stone, the Moab bones, and Burdick's sectioned "mantracks" and "saber-toothed tiger track."
August 3, 1984.
Returning to his former congeniality, Baugh invited me to observe present work at the McFall site with his classes and to observe any future work.
August 4, 1984.
While student volunteers and I began casting the submerged Taylor prints, we noted that the McFall site had been tidied up but that very little additional excavation work had been done. Two familiar depressions were enclosed in cement and plexiglass plating to combat erosion and humidity, but accumulated moisture inside the enclosure made observation impossible. Baugh had said the previous day that I could break the plating if I wanted, as the preservation was unsuccessful, but someone had already done so. One isolated depression not enclosed was so pitifully cleaned that dried mud was still on its surface and sealed by the liquid used apparently to make a molding. With this mud present, the features of the depression could literally have been sculptured as desired for the mold.
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August 11, 1984.
After I observed the exhibits at the museum, Baugh arrived to give me directions to his new dinosaur excavation upriver. Parts of a dinosaur skeleton were already encased in a plastic molding and stacked in a corner of the museum. On site, the dinosaur's pelvic region (about 65 cm in length) was next to be removed. Small blackened fossilized bone fragments were scattered over the site, and only larger pieces were being catalogued and preserved. No treatment of the fossil bones was made before removal. Hydrochloric acid was being brought in to help remove the pelvis from the very hard sandstone layer in which it lay. Baugh had first reported the find as a sauropod, but it was apparently some kind of carnosaur. What Baugh showed me as "claws" from this dinosaur were identified the next day by University of Texas at Austin paleontologist Wann Langston as crocodile teeth. Bones called neck vertebrae by the creationist excavators were identified by Langston as tail vertebrae. When I telephoned Langston on the 13th, he said it was "too late" for professionals to be of any help and that the amateur excavation of the skeleton had already been botched. It was tragic that this unusual and potentially very important find fell into Baugh's hands. It was never clear how he was going to fit this discovery into his creationist scheme, although others at the site made vague comments about Noah's flood washing and crushing the original carcass. Baugh later said he was sending the bones to a lab for carbon14 dating, confident that they were young enough for that technique (i.e., no more than 50,000 years old). (Sunderland, 1984.)
At the dinosaur site I met Glen Kuban of Cleveland, Ohio. For the last five years, Kuban had been making a careful study of most of the creationists associated with Glen Rose and most of the creationist claims. He also knew quite a bit about the Taylor site, and it soon became apparent to me that Kuban should publish his observations.
September 1, 1984.
Steven Schafersman visited the museum and surveyed all the displays. Baugh was very congenial. Meanwhile, I finished preparing and photographing my casts.
September 14-23, 1984.
When the Taylor site was "high and dry" Glen Kuban arrived from Ohio to do extensive fieldwork on the whole area. Students Mike White, Marco Bonetti, Alan Daughtry, and Dan Hastings joined me to help Kuban on the weekends. The Taylor trail, the II-D dinosaur trail, the Turnage trail, the Giant Run, and the Ryals trail were eventually cleared and cleaned, thanks to Kuban's efforts. I measured and mapped the II-D trail for comparison with the Taylor trail and with dinosaur trail data provided by James Farlow. Both the Taylor trail and the II-D trail data fitted known dinosaur data nicely. More importantly, clear dinosaur features showed up on the Taylor trail and the Turnage trail as well as on new, undocumented dinosaur trails. These trails were photographed, mapped, and videotaped (Kuban, in preparation).
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Kuban tried in vain to have creationists view these newly cleaned and mapped trailstrails that constitute their most-cited pieces of evidence for human and dinosaur contemporaneity. John Morris said he could not come, and Duane Gish's schedule was said not to allow a visit. However, Baugh was on the scene once and seemed to agree with Kuban's observations. Kyle Davies, from the paleontology department of the University of Texas, on behalf of Wann Langston, made a brief visit to aid interpretation.
September 27, 1984.
Al West, a Baugh co-worker for two years, follower of mantrack claims since 1974, and friend of Glen Kuban, went public with his charge that Baugh never had evidence for manprints as claimed. West told reporters (Potter, 1984; UPI, 1984) that he worked with Baugh and his team "under the assumption that we would be looking for scientific evidence and then if we did not find it, we would announce it to the public." But things didn't work out that way. West declared, "I can safely say I have seen no science in their activities. The facts have flat been dismissed." In his view, the evidence went against Baugh's claims, but Baugh didn't report it that way: "In the face of all this evidence, he has continued on telling the public he has man trackswhen they're not." Reporters reminded West of Baugh's claims to have uncovered paths of human prints showing left-right patterns, to which West responded, "I've never seen a path, and I've been right there." He added that Baugh's prints were "totally contrived from his imagination." West had worked directly on excavations and had even made the plaster casts for Baugh of some of the tracks. In this connection, West noted that he had seen some plaster casts which, when they were transformed into fiberglass casts, were made to look more human in the process.
It was West who had sold Baugh and his associates the site for the museum.
For the next few days, local newspapers carried articles in which Baugh tried to blame the sloppiness of excavation techniques on his former colleague, but West countered that he was only following standard and proper procedures.
As a science teacher who has had to cope with the public impact of the creationist manprint claims, I am pleased to have had the opportunity to involve my students and scientific colleagues in evaluating them. In Texas and elsewhere, the supposed mantrack data are a lynchpin in the popular argument against giving thorough coverage to evolution in biology and other science classes. As a result, students often enter and leave high school today with less knowledge of evolution than I obtained as a Texas high school student in the1960s. My students, of course, can visit the Paluxy River to see for themselves how baseless the creationist claims really are, but most students (and parents, teachers, and school board members) in the country cannot easily do so. Therefore, they are left to the mercy of relentless antievolutionary propagandists who offer persuasive "evidence" of a worldwide flood and a young earth.
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The most unfortunate aspect of all of this, besides the damaging effects on public education, is the diverting of public attention away from science and towards pseudoscience. Roland T. Bird, who first brought the Glen Rose area to light in the 1930s with his spectacular discoveries of dinosaur trackways, was himself perplexed by the growing interest in mantracks, an interest that threatened to eclipse the important fossils he had put on the map and his efforts to establish Dinosaur Valley State Park. The park was finally opened in 1969, but, just before his death in 1978, he was working to establish a small dinosaur museum at the park entrance. The project failed for lack of the few thousand dollars needed. By contrast, Carl Baugh has achieved his interim goal of a preliminary creation museum within a year, purchased ten acres of land for a "permanent" excavation, and now is actively pursuing the rest of the 3.5 million dollars he estimates he needs to complete his museum that is designed to be the size and shape of Noah's ark. Thanks to creationist publicity, the Glen Rose area has become a mecca for fundamentalist pilgrims instead of a source of accurate scientific knowledge about the earth's past. With creationists now conducting expeditions to Mount St. Helens and the Grand Canyon, one can only wonder how many more scientific sites will fall victim to pseudoscientific enthusiasm.
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.