Tripping Over a Trilobite: A Study of the Meister Tracks
On March 1, 1973, a creation-evolution debate was held at California State University in Sacramento. The creationist team consisted of Dr. Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research and Reverend Boswell of a local Sacramento church. The scientific team consisted of Dr. Richard Lemmon of the University of California at Berkeley and Dr. G. Ledyard Stebbins of the University of California at Davis. It was in this debate that I first learned of the Meister discovery. Reverend Boswell said:
I have here something that pretty much destroys the entire geological column. I don't know if you can see this or not, but it has been studied by three laboratories around the world and it's been tested and found valid. If you can see it [holding up a picture], it represents a footprint that was found at Antelope Springs, Utah, while digging for trilobites.
The man was digging for trilobites, and these are trilobites here and here embedded [pointing]. This is a brick mold of a trilobite footprint [laughter] of a human footprint with a trilobite in it. The man stepped on a living trilobite, [thus burying] him in the mud. This particular strata is dated Cambrian, supposedly 500 million years extinct before man arrived on the face of the earth. The interesting thing about this photograph is that there is also heel marks, which would indicate that they were made by modern man.
What Reverend Boswell was declaring was that a fossil seeker, Mr. William J. Meister, had found a fossil of a human bootprint while hunting for fossils near Antelope Springs in 1968. Melvin Cook, telling the same story in an article in Why Not Creationism? reported that Meister opened up like a book two slabs of Cambrian rock and found embedded in them the print complete with the trilobite fossil. Kofahl and Segraves, two creationists who also wrote about the print, seemed to express some doubt in it and, in a photo caption, asked, "Is this print valid?" But Cook more boldly declared, "No intellectually honest individual examining this specimen can reasonably deny its genuine appearance."
After Meister found the original print, four other prints were discovered. Cook writes:
Since Mr. Meister's interesting discovery, other persons have found similar but less-spectacular specimens in the same area, two of which have been shown to me.
From an article by Meister himself, we learn that the other "less-spectacular" specimens include three sandal prints and the print of a barefoot child found by Clifford Burdick. However, since these latter are not as convincing as Meister's bootprint and since none of the others have trilobites embedded in the soles, then it stands to reason that if the bootprint turns out to be false it is quite likely the others are as well.
Yet, the importance of this discovery, if genuine, is made clear by Kofahl and Segraves.
According to evolutionary chronology, man did not appear on the scene until a half billion years after trilobites became extinct. If these prints prove to be valid, historical geology has another serious problem to solve.
Realizing the significance of this creationist claim and how it would lend support to their view that the earth is very young, I decided to investigate. During the question-and-answer period of the Sacramento debate, I asked Reverend Boswell what scientific evidence he had and what institutions established that the bootprint was real. He answered, "It was the University of Utah and U.C.L.A. and I have forgotten the third. These two are fairly academic institutions. They are familiar with the specimens."
Following his lead, I wrote to the Utah Museum of Natural History at the University of Utaha "fairly academic institution." I received a letter in return which said:
The "footprint" in question was collected by a man named Meister several years ago, and it was immediately jumped on by Melvin Cook, who is not a paleontologist, as evidence of human-trilobite cohabitation.
I have seen the specimen in question and it is nothing more than a slab of Wheeler shale that has a fragment spalled off in the form of a footprint, which reveals a trilobite, Erathia kingi.
To reiterate, the trilobite is genuine, the footprint is not.
I was referred to an article by Professor William Stokes of the Department of Geological Sciences. Dr. Stokes wrote:
I unhesitatingly assert that this is not a footprint. I have observed and collected a number of types of footprints that meet all the critical requirements, and I have had no qualms about describing these in print even though some were totally new. The Meister specimen is the result of a natural break, which happens to resemble a footprint. This type of fracture is called spalling and the part which breaks out or is detached is called a spall.
The specimen was in no sense faked, and I am sure it was found exactly as reported. But I, along with my geologist friends, are equally sincere in my belief that it is an accidental natural product and not a footprint.
One might think a difference of opinion such as this could be solved by appeal to impartial judges or by a more thorough investigation of the field of evidence. But from the time of discovery, the specimen has taken on a religious significance that makes a friendly solution almost impossible.
I did not contact the other "fairly academic institution," U.C.L.A, because I could see, by studying the creationist photograph of the alleged "bootprint," that it resembled a print only superficially, much as the "Man in the Mountain" in New Hampshire superficially resembles a human face. The sides of the print are unnaturally angular, and the whole print is unnaturally shallow. Cook even notes the shallowness, saying, "The heel print was indented in the rock about an eighth of an inch more than the sole." This doesn't make for a very pronounced heel. Calling it a "sandal print," as Kofahl and Segraves do, seems to excuse the heel, but, taken as a whole, Meister's discovery is one of the most superficial-looking "human footprints" that I have seen in creationist literature. It should come as no surprise that even creationists (like Kofahl and Segraves) show caution.
However, this does not silence the creationists who stand up for it. In debates and publications the "Meister tracks" are still used to show alleged flaws in geological science. Henry Morris's Scientific Creationism, for example, speaks of "human footprints in ancient trilobite beds."
The willingness of creationists to accept such shakey evidence in defense of their model has long historical roots. For example, in 1725 Dr. Johann Jacob Scheuchzer of Zurich seized upon some fossil bones of approximately human dimensions that were discovered at Oeningen and were sent to him for an opinion.
Scheuchzer was intensely interested in anything that would help prove his theory that fossils originated largely through the work of Noah's flood. These bones seemed to help, so he declared that they belonged to Homo Diluvii Testis (Man Who Witnessed the Flood). However, nearly a hundred years later, the bones were found to be those of a large salamander. It was Cuvier, the famous French paleontologist, who offered the conclusive proof. Two petrified vertebrae, which Scheuchzer had found near Altdorf, Franconia, Germany, and believed to be further remnants of this "flood man," turned out to belong to the marine reptile ichthyosaur.
It remains to be seen how long certain modern creationists will cling to their own updated versions of Homo Diluvii Testis.
Cook, Melvin A. 1970. "William J. Meister Discovery of Human Footprint with Trilobites in a Cambrian Formation of Western Utah." In Why Not Creationism? edited by Walter E. Lammerts. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., pp. 185-186.
Kofahl, Robert E., and Segraves, Kelly L. 1975. The Creation Explanation. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, p. 54.
Meister, Wiliam S., Sr. 1970. "Discovery of Trilobite Fossils in Shod Footprint of Human in 'Trilobite Beds'A Cambrian FormationAntelope Sprints, Utah." In Why Not Creationism? edited by Walter E. Lammerts. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, pp. 186-193.
Morris, Henry M. (editor) 1974. Scientific Creationism. San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers, p. 122.
Stokes, William. 1973. "Geological Specimen Rejuvenates an Old Controversy." Dialogue. - A Journal of Mormon Thought. VIII:3,4:139, 141.