Polystrate Fossils and the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Polystrate trees David Rives

What are “polystrate” fossils, and what is their significance in the creation/evolution controversy?

by Joe Deweese, Ph.D.

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”] 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.

Morris then went on to explain that “large fossils…are found which extend through several strata, often 20 feet or more in thickness”. 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’ ”. 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.

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. As Leonard Brand explained, even if the trees had been removed from oxygen, “anaerobic bacteria cause decay unless the specimens are buried rapidly”. 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”. 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”. 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”…

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image credit: David Rives