The Salt Range saga

The “Precambrian rabbit” challenge revisited


Salt Range of Punjab, Pakistan

In the raging debate between creationists and evolutionists, one buzzword has repeatedly been employed: the ‘Precambrian rabbit’. Evolutionist Dr. J.B.S. Haldane reportedly said that finding a rabbit in the Precambrian would convince him that evolution was false–an attitude also shared by famous atheist Richard Dawkins.1 This canard has been repeated since then by just about every evolutionist who has ever argued with a creationist. Bill Nye, in his debate with Ken Ham, also suggested that finding out of order fossils would be a problem for evolution.2

Its relevance is that creationists often point out the circularity and non-falsifiability of evolutionary theory: all potential finds can be explained (or at least accommodated) by the Darwinian paradigm. This illustrates the fact that Darwinism is not empirical science, but rather a philosophical starting point that is being assumed from the outset, and from which all available data are always interpreted.

Furthermore, finds matching exactly this description have been found (and summarily dismissed) on more than one occasion. The following is a highly interesting case in point.

The Salt Marls of the Punjab region

In Pakistan is a famous range of hills formerly known as “The Saline Series” (today called simply the Salt Range Formation). This site became the center of a hot geological debate of the 20th century, with strong opinions on either side. Is the rock salt layer near the border of the Cambrian/Precambrian eras (using the evolutionary nomenclature), or is it much later, in the Eocene? The geology of the region suggests the former—yet nonetheless there was hot debate for many decades. Why? A very peculiar series of fossil finds that were extracted from one of the salt layers in this formation. In the 1940s, a certain professor Birbal Sahni (an Indian paleobotanist of the University of London) set out to discover some fossils that would ‘date’ the salt range:

“If … these saline deposits are a product of normal sedimentation from salt lakes or lagoons, and if these lakes were exposed to the air at a period when land vegetation existed … we might reasonably expect to find … at least some microscopic specks of organic matter giving a clue to the life of the period.”3

And indeed, he found exactly that:

“In quest of such a clue I examined a dozen specimens, some collected, as stated, by myself from different places in the mines … others kindly sent me last December by Mr. Lamba from the Warchha mine. … There is no question here of any cracks or solution holes, nor of any foliation imposed by thrusting or shearing forces … The investigation of this material has given results beyond all expectation: the bands of kallar must be teeming with signs of life, for every single piece has yielded microfossils … mainly shreds of angiosperm wood, but there are also gymnosperm tracheids with large round bordered pits, and at least one good, winged, six-legged insect with compound eyes. These facts suffice to prove that the Salt Marl of the Punjab cannot possibly be Cambrian or pre-Cambrian …”3

Decades-long controversy

Following this, hot debate ensued! Dr George Martin Lees, one of the geologists involved with making the case for the pre-Cambrian or Cambrian age of the Salt Range, responded:

“…from a study of the literature and from conversations with Gee, Lehner and others, I find that the regional evidence is strongly in favour of a Cambrian age for the Salt Marl group.”4

At this point, Indian geochemist, Dr. Adinath Lahiri, chimed in:

“[Others]have reported ill-preserved algae and spores, and macerated plant debris from the Kohat shale. This was confirmed by me. Warcha and Kalabagh specimens, when examined under high magnification, revealed well-stratified and numerous minute fragments of blackened or carbonized and resinified5 angiospermous wood, fossil microspores and possibly some cuticles and pollen grains, occurring either in the shale matrix or in the dolomitic marl.”6

Writing over a decade after this, a researcher Suzanne Leclercq writes of these various finds:

“Such [fossil finds]in Cambrian sediments [are] impressive and certainly unexpected …However, skepticism was prevalent among scientists. It was suspected that the samples of rocks were probably contaminated by younger sediment. That is why Indian workers repeatedly checked their results, and this always with success.7 [Emphasis added]

Issue resolved! (by ignoring the fossils)

Yet, despite all this, the clear geological evidence that shows the Saline Series (Salt Range) belongs to the so-called Cambrian or Pre-Cambrian (rather than an evolutionarily ‘later’ stratum such as the Eocene) has won the day. Fast forward to the modern day, and geologist Dr. Nigel Hughes (2017) writes:

“Subsequent to Prof. Sahni’s death in 1949 geological evidence that the Salt Range Formation was stratigraphically beneath the Jhelum Group has continued to grow. Dr. Gee continued a lifetime of mapping the geology of the Salt Range, in which he reinforced his view that the contact between the Salt Range Formation and Jhelum Group was stratigraphic … As it is now accepted that the Salt Range Formation was deposited during the Cambrian, its association with this modern–looking biota [i.e. Prof. Sahni’s fossil finds] becomes yet more incongruous.”8

Incongruous is putting it quite mildly. Sahni and others have found things such as spores, wood and even an insect with wings. The earliest “cryptospores” were not supposed to have evolved until around 68 million years later.9 Angiosperms (flowering plants) were not supposed to have evolved until the Cretaceous period, making these finds around 416 million years too early!10 And finally, winged insects, such as what Dr Sahni found, were not supposed to have evolved until the early Devonian period, making this one about 135 million years too soon.11 This is not just one ‘Precambrian rabbit’, but several at once!

This naturally leads us to wonder: how does Dr. Hughes address the issue of these astounding finds, attested by more than one qualified professional at the time? I’m sorry for the let-down, but the answer is just as predictable as it is disappointing. Hughes simply dismisses the evidence altogether with essentially no reasons given (other than the assumption of evolution, of course).

“Knowledge of the fossil record … is now significantly better than at the time of this controversy, and the possibility of these groups extending back to the Cambrian, as seemed plausible to Ghosh, Jacob and associates (although also contested at the time) is no longer defensible. The organic–walled material recovered from the Salt Range Formation and associated units is therefore clearly a modern contaminant … the most likely source is modern organic dust particles introduced from the ambient environment, despite the efforts made by Sahni’s group to sterilize the samples.”8 [Emphasis added]

Yes, Hughes goes so far as to accuse Dr. Sahni, Dr. Lahiri, and others at the time, of being incapable of distinguishing between modern contaminants and original fossil material, and being so sloppy as to allow pieces of wood and even a flying insect to get mixed in with their samples. Nobody at the time provided any proof of this, however, and naturally Hughes, writing nearly a century after the fact, cannot prove it himself. Rather, he is simply forced to make this declaration by his unwavering ideological commitment to the evolutionary paradigm. It is therefore all the more ironic that he ends his paper with a warning that controversies such as this one are sometimes “misused” by creationists.

Failure to repeat the find?

Hughes summarily dismisses the evidence as contamination without any proof; however, he does attempt to argue for this conclusion by citing other researchers have apparently failed to come up with similar fossil materials in samples from what is purported to be the same stratum:

“Oils with Cambrian biomarkers have been found within the Baghewala well (BGW–A) cored in Rajasthan … the stratigraphy of which is correlative with the Salt Range Cambrian succession … no gymnosperm or angiosperm derived material was detected within these samples. Early Cambrian organic–walled microfossils are preserved within other Cambrian rocks from the subcontinent … None of that material resembles that published by the Sahni and Gupta groups.”8[Italics added]

This is certainly a weak argument, given that they are comparing samples from an oil well roughly 570 km (about 350 mi) away! However, a German paleontologist from the University of Tübingen, Otto Schindewolf, writing the 1950s, made a claim that his team tested their own samples from the Salt Range and didn’t find these fossils themselves:

“… comprehensive studies of his own collections from the Salt Range were made by German micropaleontologists and paleobotanists … The results of these investigations (“by every known technique”, according to Schindewolf) were entirely negative. No plant remains or other fossils of younger aspect were found in any rocks from the Saline series or the overlying Cambrian sequence.”12

Granting that this is entirely accurate, however, what does it mean? Does the fact that another set of samples from the same general vicinity failed to yield the same results somehow invalidate what Dr. Sahni and others did find? Repeatability is important in operational (experimental) science, but with forensic clues, every piece of evidence is important.

Remember, here we are dealing with forensic science, not experimental science. For example, in a crime scene, one set of fingerprints at the scene could potentially make the case of guilt versus innocence. Imagine if the defense tried to argue, “Yes, you found one set of prints, but can you go back and find another set? If not, we have reason to dismiss your original find.” That would clearly be absurd. In this way, we can see how the criterion of ‘repeatability’ is taken out of its proper experimental context in an attempt to wave away these inconvenient fossil finds.

How do these finds fit into Flood geology?

Compared to the evolutionary worldview, the order of fossils in the rocks is of much lesser importance in a creationist framework. This is because the vast majority of the fossil record was actually laid down rapidly during one year-long global catastrophe. The fact that there are so many out-of-order fossils shows that the geological layers they were found were all formed at the same brief period of time—Noah’s Flood. While a rough order of preservation might be expected based on things such as geographical features and ecological habitats, due to the highly complex and chaotic nature of a global catyclysm, one would certainly expect outliers and ‘anomalies’ thrown into the mix. This is very much what we do find in the real world! A generalized order does appear to be present in the rocks, but the picture is messy. Fossils like what Dr. Sahni reported in a Precambrian stratum are not surprising in a creationist framework but should not be expected at all if evolution were true. How can a fossil be preserved at a ‘time’ when that creature had not yet evolved?

Conclusion: Darwinism can and will accommodate any finds from the field

Let the above example suffice to show the reader what will inevitably happen any time a so-called ‘Precambrian rabbit’ is found. Evolutionists will dismiss it, one way or another. They will either come up with a geological explanation that reassigns a new age to the stratum or allege that the specimen itself was contaminated. They will never question the paradigm. After all, as Hughes writes,

“… the find of a single diagnostic fossil has the potential to definitely resolve the depositional age of a unit or sequence. This potential for the instant resolution of depositional age, along with their many other scientific uses and innate appeal as objects of interest, makes fossils alluring targets for collection and analysis.”7 [Emphasis added]

This means that a Precambrian rabbit is, by definition, an impossible thing to find. If you find a rabbit in the Precambrian, you have only either managed to show that the layer was not Precambrian to begin with, or that the rabbit was not original but is rather a later contaminant. As CMI’s Shaun Doyle pointed out, “evolution can provide a just-so story for any pattern in the fossils.” And that is true, even if that story is simply that the scientist(s) must have made a mistake. Evolution is by no means falsifiable, because the ‘collective’ has already decided that evolution is unassailable fact.

On the other hand, all of these out-of-order fossils demonstrate that the layers that they are found in must have been laid down all at the same time, during Noah’s Flood. It is for this reason that Peter rightly prophesies in 2 Peter 3 that they “willingly overlook” the powerful evidence God has set before us all showing the Bible’s history is true.

Published: 16 July 2020

References and notes

  1. Doyle, S., Precambrian rabbits—death knell for evolution?, J. Creation 28(1):10–12, April 2014, creation.com/precambrian-rabbits-death-knell-for-evolution. Return to text.
  2. Boghossian, P. and Lindsay, J., Ken Ham Couldn’t Pull A Precambrian Rabbit From His Hat, richarddawkins.net, 19 February 2014. Return to text.
  3. Sahni, B., Age of the Saline Series in the Salt Range of the Punjab, Nature 153:462–463, 10 February 1944. Return to text.
  4. Lees, G., Age of the Saline Series in the Salt Range of the Punjab, Nature 153: 654, 27 May 1944. Return to text.
  5. Resinification is a process when plants exude organic polymer compounds when their surface is scratched. Return to text.
  6. Lahiri, A., Age of the Saline Series in the Salt Range of the Punjab, Nature 153: 654-655, 27 May 1944. Return to text.
  7. Leclercq, S., Evidence of vascular plants in the Cambrian, Evolution 10(2): 109-114. 13 June 1956. Return to text.
  8. Hughes, N., Biostratigraphical dating conundrums in the Cambrian and earlier stratigraphy of the Indian subcontinent, The Palaeobotanist 66:1-15, 14 April 2017. Return to text.
  9. Walker, M., Fossils of earliest land plants discovered in Argentina, news.bbc.co.uk, 12 Oct 2010. Return to text.
  10. 26.1C: Evolution of Angiosperms, bio.libretexts.org, 19 November 2019. Return to text.
  11. Palermo, E., Insect Family Tree Maps 400-Million-Year Evolution, livescience.com, 6 November 2014. Return to text.
  12. Teichert, C., Recent German Work on the Cambrian and Saline Series of the Salt Range, West Pakistan, Records of the Geological Survey of Pakistan, 11(1): 7, 1964. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Flood Fossils
by Vance Nelson
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