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The Bible doesn’t say, “And then there was an Ice Age.” Yet it does give us the big picture of human history—as well as some critical details—which help us narrow down when the ice built up and then melted away.
Just down the road from Cincinnati in the north central USA is Big Bone Lick, “the cradle of American paleontology.” The discovery of huge bones from mastodons, giant sloths, and other Ice Age creatures sparked the first scientific expedition to collect vertebrate fossils in North America. In 1807 President Thomas Jefferson sent General William Clark (of “Lewis and Clark” fame) to gather bones and ship them to the White House. Among the treasures Clark found were spear points.
After two centuries of research, we now have enough information to begin recreating scenes from the rise and fall of the Ice Age. As a massive ice sheet expanded over Canada, it drove out most living things, and then it continued to push south into the Ohio valley. Eventually, the heavy snows stopped and the earth warmed. Once the ice began to melt, animals returned to Big Bone Lick, along with spear-wielding humans. Museums worldwide depict similar scenes from this unique era.
But it is still difficult to interpret the earth’s dynamic past based on present, slow processes. During the Ice Age the earth’s landscapes, forests, and grasslands bore little resemblance to our own. Indeed, the thick ice sheets drew so much water out of the ocean that large tracts of ocean floor became dry ground. Herds of animals wandered across a 1,000-mile-wide grassy plain that stretched from Asia across the Bering Strait to North America, and people actually lived in the lowlands between England and Europe. (Fishermen in the North Sea sometimes dredge up their stone tools, which look surprisingly similar to those found at Big Bone Lick!)
Many pieces of the “Ice Age puzzle” remain unsolved, but one thing is sure. Based on the Bible, we can be certain that the changes occurred within just a few human generations—not over millions of years. What follows is only a benchmark based on our starting parameters.
The Bible gives us many clues to help us nail down the real time frame of the Ice Age. For example, when did it begin?
The Bible gives us an inerrant chronology for marking historical events. It tells exactly how many human generations passed from the Flood to Abraham’s birth: eight.1 God’s judgment occurred at Babel sometime during the days of Peleg, who was the fourth generation after the Flood (Genesis 10:25; see the timeline below).2
The Bible also reveals that humanity stayed at the plains around Babel until “the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:9).3 This means that at least three generations passed between the Flood and the first appearance of humans in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Meanwhile, the animals on the Ark had already fulfilled God’s command to “abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 8:17). 4
The Bible also tells us precisely how many years passed from Peleg’s birth to Abraham’s birth. According to the most-often used Hebrew version of the Old Testament (the Masoretic text),5 the total is 190 years.6 Each generation lasted about thirty years until Abraham’s father, Terah. He waited seventy years to have children, so you could say he waited two generations, making a total of either five or six generations from Babel to Abraham.
With this information, can we set an approximate date for the start of the Ice Age?
The “Ice Age” is an informal expression. So first it is necessary to define the term before discussing its timeline.
In secular thinking the Ice Age does not refer to the first formation of ice on the planet. Indeed, forests grew on Antarctica and the Arctic before ice began to form.7 Drilling down through Antarctica’s ice sheet, scientists have found in sediment layers beneath the ice sheet fossils of a subtropical rainforest, complete with palm trees and macadamia trees. For these to grow, the land would have to be frost-free for a brief time after the Flood.
As the earth cooled, however, grasslands expanded on the continent, while the forests changed to deciduous trees and tundra. Finally, the whole continent was covered by ice, which marked the beginning of the post-Flood cool-down. In the old-earth view, all this took place millions of years before the Ice Age and without a global Flood.
The “Ice Age” actually refers only to the period when great ice sheets arose in the Northern Hemisphere, well after the Antarctic ice sheet had formed (see above map). The deposits from this time period—caused by moving ice and melting waters—are technically known as the Pleistocene. According to old-age assumptions about radiometric dating, the deposits were laid between 2.6 million years and 11,700 years ago (9,700 BC). As the term Ice Age is used in science publications, its end does not refer to the melting of the ice sheets, but to the rising world temperatures that started the dramatic and relentless retreat of the ice.
Though this range is clearly not accurate because it lies outside the Bible’s total timeline of 6,000 years, several lines of evidence support the choice of the Pleistocene layers for the Ice Age. Anywhere that these layers have been tested by radiometric dating, the ages fall within this range. Also, the plants and animals associated with these layers fit the Pleistocene. Indeed, the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) and the saber-tooth cat (Smilodon fatalis)—descendants of the original elephant and cat kinds on the Ark—first occur in these layers and disappear at the end of this time frame, except for a few holdouts on a remote Russian island. (See “Why Were the Animals So Big?” p. 56, which discusses how the first elephant and cat kinds on the Ark might produce all this variety during the Ice Age.)
Apart from Antarctica and a few high mountain chains, sediments deposited before the Ice Age do not show signs of cold-weather environments or ice sheet activity. Indeed, the world appears to have been a pretty balmy place until the Ice Age.
Knowing these things, how can we use the human history described in the Bible to shed light on the Ice Age’s beginning? Well, for one thing, no human tools or fossils appear anywhere on the earth until found in deposits from the beginning of the Ice Age.8 (God appears to have wiped away all remains of pre-Flood man; see Genesis 6:7.) Since their earliest remains suddenly appear throughout the Old World (Asia, Africa, and Europe), it appears that these are the people who scattered from Babel.
It is reasonable to conclude that the start of the Ice Age roughly coincides with the Babel judgment.
So it is reasonable to conclude that the start of the Ice Age in the Northern Hemisphere (the Pleistocene) roughly coincides with the Babel judgment, around a century or so after the Flood (perhaps 2250 BC).
Who knows, perhaps the Ice Age was part of God’s plan to keep people from quickly resettling in one place again. The unpredictable climate would have made it difficult for anyone to settle down and raise seasonal crops in the years immediately following Babel’s dispersion.
The Bible also sheds light on the Ice Age’s end, though in an indirect way. If we can determine the dates of the first cities built after Babel, including Ur, and then show their relationship with dates for the last human and animal remains from the Ice Age, we can establish approximately when the Ice Age ended.
The Bible mentions that some very important cities were established by Abraham’s day and continued to thrive throughout Old Testament times. For instance, the city of Abraham’s nativity was Ur (Genesis 11:28). Abraham later passed through many other cities in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and Syria), Canaan, and Egypt. Since Abraham grew up in Ur, we know that it must have been founded before his birth.
Another important clue is the Bible’s reference to several familiar domesticated animals, such as camels, oxen, and donkeys, which Abraham and his contemporaries owned. These domestic animals are not the same species as Ice Age fossils of the same created kinds, and they do not appear until cities are well established. (The camels found earlier in the fossil record were not anything you would want to ride!) It appears that most wild versions of these beasts of burden were extinct by Abraham’s time, along with many other Pleistocene mammals (like wild horses in the Americas).
The fossil and archaeological record offers us a phenomenal wealth of data from thousands and thousands of sites on every continent. In case after case, radiocarbon dating confirms a general pattern. While the “radiocarbon ages” are wrong because they exceed the Bible’s timeline, the relative ages are useful. If something dates at 40,000 radiocarbon years and something else at 20,000 or 5,000, we know the first find is older than the second, and so on.9
Every fossil from the Ice Age predates anything from the earliest known human settlements.
Radiocarbon dating shows that every fossil from the Ice Age predates anything from the earliest known human settlements. Several cities have been continuously inhabited since Abraham’s day, so it’s not likely that we’re just missing evidence. 10 Many large mammals specifically designed for cold weather went extinct when the Ice Age ended, in a period known as the “Ice Age extinction event” (see “Mystery of the Megafauna Extinction,” p. 57). We are also able to date human fossils and other remains from the earliest human settlements around the world.
In no case do these settlements, including Ur, date as early as the end of the Ice Age. At the time of Ur’s settlement it was a port city on the Persian Gulf, but this gulf did not even exist during the Ice Age. Only later did the melting ice sheets raise the ocean enough to flood into the area and fill the gulf.11
Archaeologists have found thousands of campsites and small settlements where Noah’s descendants lived after the Babel dispersion during the Ice Age. These early pioneers were daring explorers and settlers, quickly reaching as far as Australia and the Americas. Everywhere they went, they found unfamiliar plants, weather cycles, soils, and wild animals. Cast off from the pampered life of the city, the tiny bands had to invent whole new ways of doing things, including living off the land while caring for their children.
The Bible does not reveal much about the biology and geology of the Ice Age, but it does tell us about the languages, culture, and migrations of the people of that time. They began as a united people with one language, capable of accomplishing great feats (Genesis 11:6). But God recognized the danger of unity without obedience to His word, so He scattered the people from Babel.
Twice the Bible repeats that “the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:8–9). Notice that this was the Lord’s doing. This supernatural event is essential for a proper understanding of human history. Yet without God’s written Word archaeologists would have no way of knowing this happened.
The fossil and archaeological record gives us a wealth of amazing detail about the creatures that Noah’s descendants met and the places where they lived.
Various species of the saber-tooth cat (such as Smilodon fatalis) began appearing as the Ice Age got underway, though not in the areas first settled by humans. The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) did not appear until later, but as the cold increased and grasslands spread across northern Asia and North America, its numbers quickly filled the grassy plains. Humans soon followed in their steps.
Another interesting development during the Ice Age was the appearance of Neanderthal people, whose range was restricted to Europe and the Near East. Like all other humans, they were descendants of the people who scattered from Babel. Their remains do not appear until the middle of the Ice Age, and they disappeared as the glaciers reached their maximum and the cold, dry weather reached its worst.12
Their short, squat bodies were better suited for the cold than the taller, thinner bodies of their contemporaries, the Cro-Magnon people (other descendants of Babel people), who looked like us. The Neanderthals used heavy spears to hunt woodland animals, but these woods began disappearing at the height of the Ice Age, to be replaced by grasslands or barren tundra. The Cro-Magnon, in contrast, made finely crafted arrows and other weapons that enabled them to hunt more easily on the open plains. The vast number of the Cro-Magnon campsites and fossils indicate these men and women were more successful at adapting to the changes.
Sometime after the demise of Neanderthal people, the first “stone age” villages begin appearing all over the Old World. We find them by the thousands, in some instances spread over several acres, and apparently predating any “cities” we know of.
It is hard to imagine such extreme changes in weather, landscapes, and vegetation during the rapid Ice Age and the years that followed. Some lush places in the north were stricken by drought, while monsoons filled the Sahara Desert with lakes and grasslands, attracting rhinoceroses, crocodiles, and human settlers. For a time at the end of the Ice Age, the drenched Nile Valley was not even habitable (at least, no human artifacts or villages have been found from this time). The great cities of Memphis and Luxor did not arise until many years later.
The toolmaking technology that archaeologists find is not a record of millions of years of human advancement. These improvements could easily happen within decades after Babel.
Stone tools and other artifacts from the Ice Age do not come with signs on them telling us their age and significance. Depending on your starting assumptions, you can reach very different conclusions, even if you start with the very same facts.
Consider one interesting example. Everywhere we find the earliest known stone tools—in Europe, Asia, and Africa—they have the same basic design, called Acheulean tools.* This type of tool appears in most Ice Age layers. Then suddenly, near the end, lots of new styles were adopted, such as the smaller Mousterian blades associated with Neanderthals.
If you believe the Ice Age lasted 2.6 million years, then you must assume human beings were making the same basic tools for at least 50,000 generations before any new ideas were invented. That scenario does not quite fit what we know about human ingenuity.
God’s Word gives us a different picture of human history. The earth is only six thousand years old, and humans lived here since the first week. All the Ice Age peoples were descendants of Noah’s three sons, who already knew how to build ships, towers, and cities.
We would expect the people who scattered from Babel to share many of the same technological skills. They also lived longer than we do, sometimes over four centuries. So they could pass down technology to many generations. In fact, it is conceivable that most of the stone tool innovations occurred within a single generation. (Noah’s son Shem was still alive when Abraham was growing up!)
*Andrew Snelling and Mike Matthews, “When Did Cavemen Live?” Answers, April–June 2012, pp. 50–55.
Why did people wait so long after Babel to build cities and farm again? Problems included the tiny populations, the threat of skirmishes, and the changing climates. We also know from the fossil record that they faced constant flooding, dust storms, supervolcanoes, massive earthquakes, meteorites, and downpours of snow or rain on a scale never before seen. It was much safer to live off the land and gather wild grains and game, as people still do in harsh environments. On top of those problems was God’s supernatural intervention to scatter the small groups of families over the face of the earth. The very purpose of this judgment, after all, was to limit mankind’s ability to “do whatever they imagine.” And it was clearly successful!
Big Bone Lick is a stark reminder of this difficult time in earth history. The “lick” was a salt deposit that appeared as the ice sheets began retreating. Animals came to lick the salt and then got trapped in the boggy ground. Humans arrived in the area later, at the end of the Ice Age. Their weapons show up in the fossil record about the same time that the large Ice Age mammals went extinct—around 2100–2000 BC. Only later would various cultures begin building pyramid-like mounds and well-defined cities in the Americas, as they did elsewhere in the world.
We still have a lot to learn. But we know for certain that the Bible sheds light that puts our world into perspective, including the Ice Age. In fact, it is essential to a right understanding of reality. That extends to modern worries, such as global warming and endangered species, because our understanding of the future is built upon our correct understanding of the past. If mankind would only take God’s Word to heart, it would transform our thinking in every area, and open up amazing new vistas in science and archaeology.
Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. We focus on providing answers to questions about the Bible—particularly the book of Genesis—regarding key issues such as creation, evolution, science, and the age of the earth.