How do Young Earth Creationists account for the fact that some cultures have been continuously measuring the years for almost five millenia?
Lining up dates from ancient documents and inscriptions is not an easy thing to do. You don't find ancient records that say, "Our nation was established on June 12, 3462 BC", for the simple reason that our modern calendar did not exist back then. So even when an ancient source gives a date, it is in the calendar they used at the time, and historians have to try to match that up to modern calendars. Scholars debate these sort of things endlessly.
So the reality is not that ancient Egyptian or Hittite or Sumerian or whatever chronologies contradict the Bible chronology. Rather, it is that SOME INTERPRETATIONS of ancient Egyptian, etc chronologies contradict SOME INTERPRETATIONS of the Bible chronology. Put that way, it's hardly an astounding fact. Reporters trying to describe current events often have difficulty fitting together all the different accounts of an event into a single coherent narrative.
When people talk about taking Bible dates literally, they usually eventually refer to James Ussher, who used the genealogies and other information in the Bible to estimate the date of creation at about 4004 BC. Modern young-earth creation theorists generally accept that as at least a ballpark, though many would stretch it out a few thousand years. Some secular historians claim to trace historical records back to circa 6000 BC. So yes, there's a discrepancy to be resolved, but it's on the same order of magnitude. No one claims to be able to trace historical records back a million years or a billion years. The histories of cultures around the world are at least generally consistent with young-earth Biblical chronology. There's no way you could use them as evidence for an evolutionary time-scale.
If these "historical records" could be trusted as absolute truth then this would be a problem for Young Earth Creationists.
However, ask any ancient historian and they will tell you that there has been some major corruption in the so-called "historical records" of ancient cultures. This is due in part to the "age wars" which took place between various ancient societies, each of which was attempting to show their people were the first people!
Remember - if you dig up an ancient scroll or tablet you don't know the words on it are true. Historians have to make assumptions just like scientists, theologians, philosophers, and so on.
I have heard secular historians state that Jewish history is generally considered to be the most reliable. (Of course, they wouldn't include the "creation week" or "worldwide flood" due to the modern scientific position that these things didn't happen. But that's another topic.)
The Young Earth Creationist considers the Bible to be the only historical record which is absolutely true and reliable. Therefore, the YEC (by the same logic) could ask "how do skeptics account for the fact that their beliefs about history conflict with the objective truth of Scripture?" But that would be rhetorical. :)
Clarence Larkin's chart on the table of nations suggests that Noah himself, after the flood, was the father of the Asian races. His lifespan happens to date back 5 millenia. So, it certainly would be possible that the Chinese date back five millenia.
The fact that their language changed at the Tower of Babel does not mean that all history was lost at that time either. The people at that time didn't just forget everything that happened before their language was confused. They very well could have all been keeping track of dates since Noah, the father of all the earth, was born.
Admittedly, we can't know for sure at this point, but this is certainly a reasonable possibility.
Biblical literalists and other Young Earth Creationists most often account for these facts by seeking to cast doubt on the careful research of historians and archaeologists. They may claim that the Egyptian, Hittite or Chinese cultures are not as old as the evidence seems to show.
Written records exist in the context of archaeological records and one ought not examine either one without the other. Ofer Bar-Yosef says in 'The Natufian Culture in the Levant, Threshold to the Origins of Agriculture' late hunter-gatherers inhabited the Near East until about 13,000 B.P. (Before Present), when sedentary Natufian hamlets began to emerge in the Levant. Wikipedia reports the earliest settlements in Eridu, a conglomeration of early temple-cities in Sumer, southern Mesopotamia, dating to around 5000 BCE. Clearly these are much too early for the biblical Flood, which supposedly occurred 2348 BCE, or about 4363 B.P. Biblical literalists generally ignore these early settlements and concentrate on later, more well known civilisations such as in Egypt or China, where it is more plausible to suggest that they post-date the biblical Flood. Nevertheless, the start of the Egyptian Old Kingdom is dated to 2649 BCE, hundreds of years before the Flood. The usual response is to cast doubts on the archaeological evidence rather than accept a redating of the biblical narrative.
No one claims to be able to trace historical records back as far as the archaeological evidence, simply because historical records are written records, and writing was not developed until around 3300 BCE, with the introduction of cuneiform script in Mesopotamia. Writing began to provide a continuous record of events from before the time attributed to the biblical Flood. Some concede there's a discrepancy to be resolved, but it's on the same order of magnitude because no one claims to be able to trace historical records back a million years. That is the role of archaeology and anthropology.
Young Earth Creationists (YECs) have proposed that the Egyptian conventional chronology is wrong. As I hope to show the evidence does not support their argument: the conventional chronology is largely correct.
If you take the genealogy of Genesis 11 as a father to son genealogy then the Flood happened 352 years before the birth of Abraham. Abraham was born 2166 BC so the Flood was 2518 BC.
The conventional dates for ancient Egyptian history are roughly:-
Archaic Period (dynasties 1-2) 3000 - 2700 BC
Old Kingdom (3-8) 2700 - 2136 BC
First Intermediate Period (9-10) 2136 - 2023 BC
Middle Kingdom (11-12) 1986 - 1795 BC
Second Intermediate Period (13-17) 1795 - 1550 BC
New Kingdom (18-20) 1550 - 1070 BC
Third Intermediate Period (21-25) 1070 - 664 BC
Late Period (26-30) 664 - 332 BC.
I shall give what I believe is good evidence that the conventional Egyptian chronology is essentially correct. I believe that the main evangelical resolution to this conflict (between early Genesis and Egyptian history) for a hundred years before the modern YEC movement was that Genesis 11 is not a father to son genealogy, but that there are gaps in the genealogy. It cannot therefore be used to produce a chronology and so we cannot fix any date, not the correct century nor even the correct millennia, on either the Flood or the Tower of Babel.
YECs have looked for explanations for why Egyptian history conflicts with the Flood date of about 2500 BC, which would put the Flood right in the middle of the Old Kingdom period. They have proposed the Egyptian chronology must be wrong. Unfortunately for them, their expertise lies mainly in more scientific disciplines such as biology and geology rather than Egyptian archaeology and history.
YEC, Paul Garner, in his book "The New Creationism" (EP Books, 2009, page 73) writes:-
So if we have correctly understood the biblical text, Adam was created only 6000 years ago... Of course, to modern ears this seems an absurdly short chronology and there are two obvious objections to it. [The second objection concerns the age of the earth according to "conventional science".]
The first objection concerns the dating of civilizations like ancient Egypt, which are said to have been in existence for much longer than the biblical dates allow. However, it should be noted that some scholars believe the Egyptian chronology to be in error by several centuries and that a thorough downwards revision is required. This would inevitably have a 'knock-on' effect with other civilizations, many of which are dated by correlation with Egypt.... Readers who are interested in pursuing these ideas might like to begin with John Bimson's booklet "(When) Did it Happen? New Contexts for Old Testament History".
Turning then to John Bimson's booklet we find a discussion of two proposed revisions of the Egyptian history, one by David Rohl, author of "A Test of Time" and the other by Peter James et al, authors of "Centuries of Darkness". Both revisions propose that the Third Intermediate Period (TIP) in the conventional chronology is too long: David Rohl shortens it by 350 years, and Peter James et al shorten it by 250 years. (Of course, in each case, all the Egyptian chronology earlier than the TIP period is thus brought forward by the same number of years.)
First it should be noticed that neither of these new chronologies resolve the essential problem: they both will still have the Flood as occurring in the middle of Egyptian history.
But another problem arises when we look at the archaeological evidence from Jericho. Three different methods place the Exodus from Egypt in 1446 BC and the Fall of Jericho in 1406 BC. Amongst the ruins of Jericho dated to the same time as the fall of the walls of Jericho were found a number of scarabs. Scarabs have been found containing the names Thutmose III, Hatshepsut, Amenhotep II and Amenhotep III. There have been no scarabs found after the reign of Amenhotep III at Jericho. These are all pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty and according to the conventional Egyptian chronology the 18th Dynasty was from about 1550 to 1300 BC. The scarabs of Jericho are thus powerful evidence that the conventional Egyptian chronology is essentially correct. If either Peter James or David Rohl's chronology were correct then we would have expected scarabs from a previous dynasty. For more on the evidence from Jericho see How do Christians reconcile archeology with the Bible in the account of the Battle of Jericho?
Also, since the year of the Exodus does not change from 1446 BC for the revised chronologies then we have the rather strange proposal in both cases that the Exodus happened while the Hyksos (foreigners) were ruling Egypt.
Exodus 12:40 tells us that Jacob entered Egypt 430 years before the Exodus, i.e. in 1876 BC. This was when Joseph was ruling in Egypt. The trouble with both proposed revisions of the Egyptian history is that they would then place Joseph's rule in the First Intermediate Period, a time of relative insignificance in Egyptian history. On the other hand the conventional Egyptian chronology would mean that Joseph is in the 12th Dynasty ruling around the time of the mighty Senusert III and Amenemhat III. It is said that at the beginning of the 12th Dynasty the main rivalry to the power of the Pharaoh was the local Nomarchs (similar to barons in feudal history). By the end of his reign he had brought a dramatic end to their power and centralised political power. However Egyptologists agree this was not achieved by civil war.. but how it was achieved is not known to them.
The centralising of power under Pharaoh, as recorded in Egyptian secular history, fits perfectly with the Genesis account of Joseph buying up Egypt for the Pharaoh during the seven years of famine. What this means in practice is that the conventional Egyptian chronology is essentially correct back to the 1870s BC and the 12th Dynasty. The years for the 12th Dynasty and the Pharaohs ruling in the 12th Dynasty according to the conventional chronology are correct.
Furthermore it is a pity that Christians should wish to stray from the conventional chronology when it synchronises so beautifully with the Scriptures in so many ways. For more on the synchronies for the time of Joseph in Egypt see Why we do we "know" that Joseph wasn't Hyksos?. See also Does anyone know the name of the pharaoh that Joseph brought his family to meet?
Prophecy works both ways: forwards and backwards. When a prophetic passage in the Bible weaves together a series of statements in chronological order, in periods of equal duration, spanning thousands of years, you have a framework. If the future statements prove true - they come to pass - they miraculously defend the backwards looking statements which are cemented into a timeline whose start year is thousands of years BC, not tens of thousands, millions or billions.
One argument for the reliability of the Biblical record from a YEC standpoint that is less often mentioned is the accuracy of prophecy.
The Jews were told to reject prophets if what they said did not come to pass.
21 You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed. (Deut 18:21-22)
If a prophet says things about today and predicts things about tomorrow and tomorrow their predictions prove accurate (and they do not advocate other Gods, as warned elsewhere!), they have been authenticated. The doctrines and counsel they communicate about today are trustworthy and binding. If such a prophet prophesies events in the near future that come to pass, they can also be trusted concerning predictions about the distant future.
For example, John predicted "ten days" of persecutions for the second of the seven churches in Revelation. They ultimately experienced persecution under ten separate Roman emperors, until Constantine. stopped all that. Since some of John's predictions in Revelation have already come to pass, we trust that the rest will, too.
Such fulfilled prophecy demonstrates the supernatural power and accuracy of the Bible. However, we can turn time around. If doctrines about holy living produce peace and predictions of the future provide sound guidance, what about memories? Recollections? Analogies and parables that refer to past events?
The supernatural power and accuracy of the Bible applies equally to backwards looking statements. What if a Bible passage or book contains a clock, a series of statements laid out chronologically according to uniform time intervals? The prophet lived in the middle of that time. Their true statements about the future authenticate their statements about the past. Then, since the whole passage or book defines a precise time sequence, that applies backwards and forwards. That establishes (to within the accuracy of our knowledge of certain ancient dates, a few decades to a century) the time of the creation, flood, Tower of Babel and all the rest. If such time grids exist in the Bible, they prove the timeline of the YEC position.
My 2022 book Peace, like Solomon never Knew, explores 35 prophetic clocks in the Bible. Some begin at the creation, some with Solomon's dedication of the temple, some with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ and one with the birth of modern Israel. These many clocks overlap and intersect, reinforcing one another. Parables in Ecclesiastes and elsewhere are riddles that help define the time periods of some of the clocks. Together, these clocks incorporate hundreds of prophecies into their matrix. Every single generation from the creation to the present (and continuing into the future) has at least a few such prophecies. The lack of prophetic gaps indicates a lack of temporal gaps.
The traditional debate is about comparing the output of the historians, editors and editorial process that yielded the Bible to the histories compiled by other cultures. Evidence is restricted to the products of archeology, which have numerous gaps and difficulties in interpretation. Nothing about recent history, its events and our ability to perceive and interpret them can be taken as evidence to support or contradict these findings.
The argument in this answer offers new witnesses and new evidence. Since events from the whole of human history including recent events, are as prophesied in the Bible, then all the prophets become witnesses to the times of the creation , flood , etc. And events that we experience and can verify make us witnesses, too.