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80 whales buried mysteriously in Chilean desert

Marine graveyard is evidence for Noah’s Flood

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First published: 1 December 2011 (GMT+10)
Re-featured on homepage: 28 April 2021 (GMT+10)
Image from Daily Mail3
Figure 1. A complete fossil whale skeleton in the Chilean desert.

Researchers from the USA and Chile reported, in November 2011, a remarkable bone bed on the west coast of northern Chile near the port city of Caldera, about 700 kilometres (440 miles) north of the capital, Santiago.1 Excavations uncovered the remains of some 80 baleen whales of which more than 20 specimens were complete (figure 1).2 They also found other kinds of marine mammals including an extinct dolphin with tusks and a sperm whale.3

The previous year, construction workers upgrading the Pan-American Highway discovered the fossil site in a road cut just north of Caldera. Since then, teams of scientists led by palaeontologist Nick Pyenson4 from the Smithsonian Institute and Mario Suarez from the nearby Museo Paleontologico de Caldera5 have been working to excavate the fossils while the road works were temporarily suspended.

The fossils alongside the highway are confined to a sandstone ridge about 20 metres (70 feet) wide and 240 metres (800 feet) long (figure 2). Most whales were about 8 metres (25 feet) long, and perfectly preserved. Some whales were so close together that they overlapped one another (figure 3). The site in a corner of the Atacama Desert is now well above sea level and over a kilometre from the shore. Suarez said it was well known that whale bones jutted out of the ridge, which was given the name Cerro Ballena, or Whale Hill.6

whales
Figure 2. Photo illustrates the extent and thickness of the outcrop containing the whale fossils. Larger cobbles and pebbles are seen at the base of the outcrop behind the person crouching, and on the top of the cut on the other side of the road. Coarser lenses, possibly of pebbles or shells, are visible in the embankment behind the man. Image from Daily Mail.3 Click for larger image.
Figure 3. Whales overlapping one another. Image from io913

Paleontologists were thrilled to find the treasure trove, describing it as “very unusual”. Pyenson thinks the whales all died “more or less at the same time” after they were trapped in a lagoon. Others suggest they became disoriented and beached themselves. Paleontologist Erich Fitzgerald from Museum Victoria in Australia said it’s possible the remains accumulated over thousands of years. Whale expert Hans Thewissen from Northeast Ohio Medical University thought the whales might have gathered in a lagoon and been stranded by an earthquake or storm. After the connection to the ocean closed, the lagoon dried up and the whales died.

The puzzle of how these marine creatures died has caught news headlines with one reporting “Fossil Bonanza Poses Mystery”. Another asked, “How did 75 whales end up in the desert?”

Interestingly, some of those posting comments on these news reports suggested the creatures perished in Noah’s Flood. Robert Raeburn of Western Australia said, “The whales probably swam there when the whole world was covered in water, about 4000 years ago at the time of Noah. They would then have been stranded when the waters assuaged (drained back) to expose the dry land. … This all makes sense when viewed from a ‘Bible’ perspective.” An email friend suggested the same to Mario Suarez, one of the lead paleontologists. Not surprisingly, this idea generated a deal of web comments.

What stops people making the obvious connection between these fossils and Noah’s Flood? It’s the million-year ages assigned to the fossils.

The field evidence for large-scale catastrophe is overwhelming as these research scientists have reported. What stops people making the obvious connection between these fossils and Noah’s Flood? It’s the million-year ages assigned to the fossils. On one comments thread Holly from the USA responded to the Noah’s Flood idea with, “Nothing from the Bible perspective makes sense, since 4,000 years ago that area wasn’t covered with water. However it was about 2 million years ago.”

But the 2-million-year-figure is the number paleontologists gave for the age of the fossils. Actually, they said the whales probably died between 2 million and 7 million years ago—that is early Pliocene to early Miocene (according to the International Stratigraphic Chart7). But where did they get those ages from?

Figure 4. Late Cenozoic sedimentary basins on the west coast of northern Chile. From Feldmann et al.11  Click for larger image

First, they assign the ‘series’ and ‘stage’ by the field relationships among the strata and according to the fossils found therein.8 At this site they said that the fossil dating is complicated and probably not sufficiently precise to determine if the whales all died at the same time. Second, once the series and stage has been decided they simply read the ‘age’ in millions of years off the chart.

Figure 5. Immense boulder conglomerate toward the base of the Caldera basin indicating the high energy processes associated with the early sediment fill. Boulder deposits such as this have been connected with the receding waters of Noah’s Flood.14 Image from Pyenson Lab15 

But how were the numbers determined for the chart? By agreement of an international committee which bases its thinking on the geological philosophy of uniformitarianism—a philosophy that only allows slow and gradual processes as explanations, or local catastrophes at the very largest.9 In other words, uniformitarian geologists are quite comfortable to hypothesise a storm, earthquake or tsunami, but not the global Flood.

On the other hand, drawing on multiple lines of evidence, biblical geologists consider the Flood a real event in history and the fossil layers to have been deposited mostly during this event. The Flood washes away the millions of years because it falsifies the assumptions on which the million-year ages are based. Most biblical geologists would accept that the standard geological column represents the general order of deposition during the Flood, with some of the uppermost parts of the column being deposited in the 4,300-year period afterwards.10

The sandstone strata containing the whale fossils are contained within a local area called the Caldera basin (figure 4).11

Similar localised basins are found at a number of places along the western coast of Chile. Although the basins are relatively small for Flood deposits, the characteristics of the sediments in these basins (figures 2 and 5) and the abundant fossils contained in them indicate that deposition took place during a period of rapid and major coastal subsidence.12 Coastal subsidence of this nature is exactly what we would expect in the second part of the Flood when the ocean basins sank, the continents rose and the floodwaters flowed into the ocean. And major coastal subsidence explains the rapid burial of the whales and other creatures because rapid burial was needed soon after death to preserve the fossils. After the ocean basins had mostly subsided and the waters had almost completely drained from the land, the whales and other animals that perished in the catastrophe were buried—toward the end of Noah’s Flood. As Robert Raeburn commented on one of the web news reports, the mystery disappears when we interpret the rocks and the fossils from a Bible perspective.

References and notes

  1. Bhattacharya, A., Chilean desert yields trove of whale fossils, , blogs.nature.com, 18 November 2011. Return to text.
  2. Gramling, C., Researchers Rush to Recover Whale Fossils From Highway Project, news.sciencemag.org, 18 November 2011. Return to text.
  3. How did 75 whales end up in the desert? Rows of prehistoric bones unearthed in one of the most significant discoveries of its kind, dailymail.co.uk, 21 November 2011. Return to text.
  4. Pyenson Lab, Oct 2011 and Nov 2011 posts, nmnh.typepad.com. Return to text.
  5. Museo Paleontologico de Caldera, cepchile-paleontologia.es.tl. Return to text.
  6. Vergara, E. and James, I., Whales In The Desert: Fossil Bonanza Poses Mystery, huffingtonpost.com, 19 November 2011. Return to text.
  7. International Stratigraphic Chart, stratigraphy.org. Return to text.
  8. See for example: Walsh, S.A. and Suarez, M.E., New penguin remains from the Pliocene of Northern Chile, Historical Biology 18(2):115–126, 2006; p. 117 for a description of how ages are assigned to sedimentary strata. Return to text.
  9. Murphy, M.A. and Salvador, A. (Eds.), International Stratigraphic Guide—An abridged version, International Subcommission on Stratigraphic Classification of IUGS, International Commission on Stratigraphy, Chapter 2. Principles of Stratigraphic Classification, stratigraphy.org. Return to text.
  10. Oard, M.J., The geological column is a general Flood order with many exceptions, J. Creation 24(2):78–82, 2010. Return to text.
  11. Feldmann, R.M., Schweitzer, C.E., Encinas, A., Neogene decapods crustacean from Southern Chile, Annals of Carnegie Museum 78(4):337–366, 2010. Return to text.
  12. Encinas, A., Finger, K.L., Nielsen, S.N., Lavenu, A., Buatois, L.A., Peterson, D.E. and Le Roux, J.P., Rapid and major coastal subsidence during the late Miocene in south-central Chile, Journal of South American Earth Sciences 25:157–175, 2008. Return to text.
  13. What are the fossilized remains of more than 80 whales doing in the driest desert on Earth?, io9.com. Return to text.
  14. Oard, M.J., Hergenrather, J. and Klevberg, P., Flood transported quartzites—east of the Rocky Mountains, J. Creation 19(3):76–90, 2005. Return to text.
  15. From Pyenson Lab, Dispatch 7: Walking outcrop, measuring section, nmnh.typepad.com, 6 October 2010. Return to text.

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