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Open letter to science editors

Radiocarbon Dating and Catastrophism

A Quantitative Test for Catastrophic Theories
Euan W. MacKie

Dr.  MacKie is assistant keeper, Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow.  Antiquity (December, 1971) published a paper by him entitled "Some Thoughts on Radiocarbon Dating." The paper published here was first read at the Velikovsky Symposium, Lewis and Clark College (Portland, Oregon), August 17, 1972.

When assessing and testing theories which are as revolutionary and wide-ranging in their content and implications as those of Dr. Velikovsky, it is most important to define the exact relevance of each piece of evidence concerned.  Otherwise there is a danger—which faces equally adherents and opponents—that the whole of a theory, or a major part of one, will be thought to have been confirmed or disproved by a piece of evidence which is in fact wholly unable to bear either of these weighty conclusions by itself.  An essential preliminary to such analyses of the evidence is the division of Velikovsky's theories into their component parts and the making of a distinction between the general and the specific elements in them.

In fact Velikovsky has put forward at least two, possibly three[1], major General Theories and a large number of Specific Theories stemming from them, all of which should be capable of being tested individually.  Clearly the general theories are the most important: if they are disproved, the specific theories become irrelevant.  On the other hand some of the specific theories could be drastically modified, or even disproved, without affecting the general theories.

There are two General TheoriesOne is that catastrophes of global extent have afflicted Earth in the past.  Two is that planets of the solar system have come into near contact with each other in the past (and that when such contacts involved Earth, terrestrial cataclysms occurred).  These two general theories are to some extent independent of one another.  Presumably (1) could be true without (2) and vice versa.  Also the evidence for each is largely independent except for human records.

The numerous Specific Theories follow from the general ones and support them.  Some of the most important can be framed as questions, such as: --one, is Velikovsky right in his dating of the three most recent series of upheavals to the 24th/23rd centuries B.C.(end of the Old Kingdom [*] in Egypt), the 15th century B.C. (end of Middle Kingdom) and to the 8th and early 7th centuries B.C.?  Two, is he right in identifying the agents which caused these?  Three, is he right in his allocation of specific features and events on Earth to individual catastrophes?  The last question asks, in effect, how easy it is to infer the precise effects of individual cataclysms from the incomplete historical evidence known to us.  There are, of course, numerous other specific theories but this is not the place for listing them.

[*]  Velikovsky claims not to know this date with exactness.  Ed.

One general point may be made about this analysis.  When one is thinking of tests for these theories or when one is measuring them against the evidence in one's own discipline, one must be quite clear what it is that one is testing.  Is it the major General Theories One and Two themselves or only one of the specific theories?  It has struck me, when reading the literature on Velikovsky, that too often neither his supporters nor opponents are making these distinctions, which are fundamental to analytical science.

It is possible, using radiocarbon dates, to devise a simple quantitative test for the First General Theory and for many of the specific theories stemming from it.  Such a test, when carried out fully, ought to settle once and for all the problem of whether the Earth has been shaken by global convulsions in the past.  It will, moreover, settle it more conclusively than any amount of data from space probes and moon landings.  Again, until this test is carried out, I would suggest that it is impossible for a uniformitarian to maintain that such catastrophe's have not occurred, since the evidence concerned has not been collected.  Absence of physical evidence for global catastrophes is not evidence for absence of them.

The tests I suggest here involve the use of C-14 (radiocarbon) dates in a manner that has so far not been widely applied, though I have already pointed out its possibilities in another field[2].  It is true of course that C-14 dates are no longer thought to be absolutely reliable in terms of real years —the tree-ring calibration has shown serious discrepancies between "radiocarbon years" and real years before about 500 B.C., a discrepancy which increases to as much as 800 years in the 4th and 5th millennia B.C.[3]  Also there can be great difficulties in making sure that the dated samples are reliable, that they have not been contaminated by older or younger carbon, that the death of the organism concerned (equivalent to its radiocarbon age) occurred at the same time as its incorporation into a geological or archaeological deposit, and so on.

Nevertheless, assuming the samples to be as reliable as possible, radiocarbon dating has provided us with a superb tool to test the catastrophic theories quantitatively.  It gives us a reliable relative dating system which allows us to compare the times in the past that events occurred between which there could otherwise be no detectable connection whatever.  In other words it will demonstrate the contemporaneity, or otherwise, between major environmental changes (such as alterations in the sea level, in the extent of the ice sheets, volcanic eruptions) and human events (such as migrations and the destruction of cities and cultures).  We may consider some examples (all dates mentioned are in radiocarbon years).

A test could be devised for the First General Theory—have global catastrophes occurred in the past? —using the available data on sea level changes in Europe.  Many fluctuations in the sea level have occurred there since the end of the last glacial period at about 8500 B.C. and these have been extensively studied.  The fossil shorelines which are the physical evidence of altered sea levels, are usually supposed to have resulted from eustatic (world wide) changes in the water level due to shrinkage and expansion of the ice caps, and also to isostatic causes.  These last are due to local land movements and show themselves in fossil shorelines which are tilted in relation to the present sea.  The assumption is that the reduction of the weight of ice on land masses allowed them to rise slowly, and vice versa.

If Velikovsky's First General Theory is, correct, then the numerous radiocarbon dates which have been obtained for fossil shorelines in Europe must cluster at specific points, because the theory demands that ocean levels altered relatively suddenly at certain dates in the past.  Moreover the C-14 dates of some, if not all the tilted raised shorelines should also cluster at these points.  This is particularly important because the First General Theory must also assume that geological strata were violently disturbed at the same time as the ocean levels altered.  The theory of Uniformity however, while it obviously allows simultaneous, though presumably slow, eustatic sea level changes because of the shrinkage and expansion of the polar caps, cannot automatically assume that the circumpolar land masses—in their individual isostatic adjustments—would act in concert with these.  Thus isostatic shoreline changes should be scattered more or less at random between general eustatic changes if a Uniformitarian explanation is correct, but most of both should coincide if a Catastrophic view is right.

There are several hundred C-14 dates available for fossil shorelines and submerged land surfaces in Europe[4], but no one yet seems to have published any overall analyses of these or to have investigated whether any general correlations are possible between the various areas studied.  From the limited spare time work I have been able to do it does seem possible that there were some marked peaks in dated sea level changes (figs.  1 and 2).  The diagram for the 4th millennium was prepared for a conference in 1969 and the one for the period around 6000 B.C. has been compiled for this article.  These two periods do seem to show clusters of dates, but conclusive evidence will only be obtained when all the dates are plotted on a histogram extending from the 9th millennium B.C. down to the present.

Just how useful, indeed essential, this type of research is, is well shown by the studies made in the Forth valley in eastern Scotland.  It has long been known that when the sea reached its maximum post-glacial height, the Forth valley was flooded up to several miles west of Stirling and was a huge estuary[5].  This was the time the coarse clays were deposited and their extent defines that of the high sea estuary.  The flooding of the Forth valley occurred at about 6200 B.C. and is part of the major change dateable to that time mentioned earlier and which seems finally to have isolated Britain from the Continent of Europe[6] . At least part of the estuary was drained again in the middle of the 4th millennium B.C. (fig. 2).

However, systematic studies during the 1960's show that the history of the sea level in the Forth valley was much more complex[7].  Below the coarse clay, and thus pre-dating about 6000 B.C., are three Buried Beaches—the High, Middle and Low—reflecting earlier post-glacial ocean level changes.  Then came the high sea level which laid down the carse clay which covered these features and this later diminished in four stages which are witnessed by four Raised Beaches cut into the clay.  One of these may-have been formed about 3500 B.C. as mentioned above, but at least two of the others are later.

                       Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 1 shows the relevant C-14 dates known to me for the period from 7000 to 5500 B.C. and Figure 2 those for the period 4100 to 3000 B.C. All available volcanic sites have been included, but only the sea-level dates for the British Isles. In the case of the latter, T means Transgression (rising water level), and R recession. The County Durham dates were all done on different parts of the same piece of antler, and one pair must be wrong. The 7th millennium dates frome Iceland represent a recession of the sea (start of past growth) followed by a lava flow at the same site.

                       Figure 2

Too many of the volcanic deposits still have only a single C-14 date—which could be substantially in error for some reason—and significant patterns are not clearly observable. However, when the deposits of an eruption receive a number of dates—as with the 7th millennium French site—these dates begin to cluster towards the end of tht millennium and should be pinning down the date of the eruption more precisely. Probably a minimum of six dates is needed for each deposit,

Recent work has suggested that one raised beach may have been elevated above the water shortly before 2000 B.C., that being the time that a Mesolithic shell heap next to it ceased to accumulate[8].  In terms of the local archaeological sequence these beaches fall into the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods[9].  What is more all these Raised and Buried shore-lines are slightly tilted both in relation to one another and to the present sea level.  The gradients are tiny—a few feet per mile— but have been detected with careful theodolite surveying[9].  So isostatic land movements, usually assumed to be the result of shrinking or expanding ice sheets, were evidently occurring millennia after the last ice caps had vanished from Scotland.

Thus not only will a comparative and statistical analysis of radiocarbon dates of fossil shorelines provide a crucial test for the First General Catastrophic Theory, but it will also provide an equally crucial test for the Specific Theories concerning the times of the last suggested catastrophes in the third, second and first millennia B.C. This test is a simple one which could be carried out in any part of the world where abundant fossil shore-lines are preserved and capable of being dated by radiocarbon.  The existence or otherwise of significant peaks in the resulting histograms of dates is a matter for statistical calculation and, given enough dates, a quantitative demonstration of the plausibility or otherwise of the First General Theory ought to be forthcoming.

However it could be argued perhaps that the volume of the ice caps, and hence the level of the oceans, could change relatively rapidly through causes other than global catastrophes.  For this reason it is necessary to test for correlations with other phenomena to which the same type of radiocarbon test can be applied.  Considerable progress has been made—independently by several researchers—in dating past eruptions by several well known volcanoes.  Here again a systematic programme of dating all detectable past eruptions should be undertaken. Obviously eruptions occur in modern times while the celestial order remains unchanged, but again the First General Theory in effect demands that, when enough ancient eruptions prior to the 7th century B.C. have been dated, the majority of these must be seen to have occurred—all over the world—simultaneously at specific times in the past.

Moreover peaks in the histogram of dates of volcanic eruptions must also coincide with any peaks in that of the sea level changes if the First General Theory is correct.  If such correlations do appear, it is difficult to see how a Uniformitarian interpretation could explain them away as a coincidence.  If they do not, it would be extremely difficult to maintain a terrestrial catastrophic theory for post-glacial times.

With the two sets of dates in figs. 1 and 2 are included those for volcanic eruptions that I have traced.  A number of very violent eruptions seem to have occurred in various parts of the world towards the end of the 7th millennium B.C. and some more in the 4th millennium B.C., particularly in Iceland.  Again the possible correlations with the sea level changes should not be assumed to be significant until all dates have been plotted in the way suggested, but the patterns are interesting.  The diagrams are at least demonstrating the enormous value of C-14 dates for this type of research.

If one looks at the record of eruptions in a specific and well studied area—Iceland for example—some interesting facts emerge.  Two types of eruptions have occurred in Iceland, showers of ash thrown out of volcanoes like Hackle, and vast lava flows which have welled out of splits in the Earth's crust and covered scores of square miles of countryside in sheets many feet thick.  These massive lava flows occurred at about 7100 B.C., 6200 B.C., 4200 B.C., 3500 B.C., again at about 2500 B.C. and in the first century B.C. according to the dates obtained by Icelandic volcanologists[10].

Explosive eruptions of Hackle, involving huge ash falls, have occurred at about 4600 B.C., about 2100 B.C., several times between about 900 and 700 B.C. and at about A.D. 1100.  Some of these eruptions appear to have occurred at about the same time as both the sea level changes already alluded to and as the dates deduced by Velikovsky in his Specific Theories of when global catastrophes occurred in the past.  However here again reliance on a single area is not enough; the world-wide picture must be drawn.

Another related field to which this comparative radiocarbon date test can be applied in various ways is that of archaeology.  It goes without saying that social disorder, migrations and conquests have occurred in ancient times without global catastrophes having occurred.  However the First General Theory strongly suggests that widespread folk movements occurred at the time of the global cataclysms it postulates.  Therefore, if enough radiocarbon dates for the arrival of new cultures in given areas are available, it should be possible to detect if any correlations exist between these and any episodes of ocean level changes.

The chart of the 4th millennium might be relevant here also (fig. 2).  This was composed originally for a conference and was designed to suggest a line of investigation into the circumstances surrounding the original colonization of the British Isles by Neolithic (stone-using) farmers which does not seem to have been explored hitherto.  Side by side with the radiocarbon dates for sea level changes and volcanism in the middle of the fourth millennium B.C. are given the dates for the earliest Neolithic sites, mostly from the long mounds and cairns which covered the collective graves of that period.

Why these peasant farmers took the decision to cross the English channel and settle in an unknown land at the time they did has never been clear, and the question has seldom been asked[11].  Yet when one sees here how the earliest Neolithic dates apparently come soon after those for the sea level changes and at a time of widespread volcanic activity in Iceland and elsewhere, one can only wonder whether the first farmers came across to Britain as a result of some drastic changes in the environment.  The possibility clearly exists, although many more dates will be needed before it can be said that it is or is not likely.  It may well be that the pattern shown by these dates is the outline of the one to be expected a priori if Velikovsky's First General Theory is correct, and this type of investigation certainly needs to be pursued.

Finally the numerous destruction levels in the cities and settlements of antiquity might be subjected to the same kind of study.  Cities have been wrecked and burnt at all times, of course, and many of these burnt levels have been carbon-dated.  When enough such destruction levels—from the Mediterranean to China and Peru—have been closely dated with reliable organic samples (particularly sites where masonry buildings have collapsed and buried their contents), any universal destructions should stand out in the kind of analysis suggested.  Again, such 'peaks' of destruction dates, if they prove to exist, should coincide with any found in the histograms of dates from sea levels, volcanic activity and other major archaeological culture changes.

An important aspect of this analysis, as with the others suggested, is that all relevant C-14 dates, say up to A.D. 1500, should be included.  This ought to prevent any unconscious bias in favor of the dates of any particular age, and would also forestall the criticism that peaks of dates might occur in the period after the last suggested upheaval.  An important implication of the First General Theory—and one which needs to be tested equally with the others mentioned—is that there should be no combined peaks of dates after 687 B.C.

It is always dangerous to pin too much of a theory on the interpretation and dating of a few sites of whatever kind.  The method of comparative study by C-14 dates which I am suggesting should get over this difficulty and will either clearly support or clearly disprove any theory that global catastrophes have occurred.  Moreover its results will be independent of the evidence pertaining to General Theory Two—which says that the agents of the catastrophes were extra-terrestrial—and should reduce what seems to me an excessive dependence on the data, inevitably incomplete, currently being obtained from the Moon, Mars and Venus.  Earth alone will provide the conclusive evidence for or against terrestrial catastrophes.


(1)      The third general theory might be that electric forces play an important part in the solar system.

(2)       E.W. MacKie, "Thoughts on Radiocarbon Dating," Antiquity, 45 (December, 1971),197-200, and "Some Aspects of the Transition from the Bronze-to-Iron-Using Periods in Scotland," Scott. Arch.  Forum, 3 (1971), 55-72, especially figures 1 and 2.  More examples in H.  Godwin, "The Contribution of Radiocarbon Dating to Archaeology in Britain," Phil. Trans. Roy.  Soc. Lond., Section A, 269, Number 1193 (December 1970),57:75.

(3)      W. F. Libby, "Radiocarbon Dating," Phil. Trans.  Roy. Soc.  Lond., Section A, 269, Number 1193 (December 17, 1970), 1-10.

(4)       Published in the journal Radiocarbon since 1959.

(5)       A. D. Lacaille, The Stone Age in Scotland (London, 1954), pp. 167-75 and Figure 64.

(6)       The top of the Sea bed under the North Sea is of this age.

(7)       J.  B. Sissons, The Evolution of Scotland's Scenery (Edinburgh, 1967); J. B. Sissons and C. L. Brooks.  "Dating of Early Post-Glacial Land and Sea Level Changes in the Western Forth Valley." Nature, 234 (December 13, 1971), 124-27.

(8)       E. W . MacKie, "Radiocarbon Dates for Two Mesolithic Shell Heaps and a Neolithic Axe Factory in Scotland", Proc. Prehist.  Soc., 38 (1972), 412-16.

(9)       I. Morrison, "Some Problems in Correlating Archaeological Material and Old Shorelines," Scott.  Arch. Forum, 1 (1969), 1-17.

(10)      Several articles in Icelandic, with English summaries, in Nàttúrufraedingurinn, 34, Part 3 (1964), 97-145.

(11)     H. Case, "Neolithic Explanations," Antiquity, 43 (1969), 176-86; and D. D. A. Simpson, ed., Economy and Settlement in Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Europe (Leicester, 1971).


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