Neanderthals: Our Worthy Ancestors
There are three lines of evidence demonstrating that the Neanderthals were fully human ancestors of modern humans in spite of their undeserved sordid reputation. First is the most recent: the nuclear DNA evidence. Second, there is strong fossil evidence that Neanderthals lived in close association and integration with modern humans. Third, the cultural evidence demonstrates that Neanderthal behaviors and thoughts were fully human. The evidence in all these areas is extensive.
The DNA Evidence
The turning point in DNA research was the discovery of techniques to identify and manipulate genetic material by using the polymerase chain reaction, affectionately known as PCR. This discovery was such a remarkable breakthrough in modern biotechnology that Kary B. Mullis shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for inventing it.
Before PCR, there was a shortage of genetic material for experiments. This material was extremely difficult to obtain because it was always embedded in a living cell. It was hard to get an intact molecule of natural DNA from any organism except from extremely simple viruses. The PCR technique enables researchers to make unlimited copies of any specific DNA sequence independent of the organism from which it came.
Since DNA is such an incredibly complex molecule, when an organism dies its DNA breaks down rather rapidly. Eventually the strands of the molecule are so short that no information can be obtained from them. PCR, with its ability to replicate short strands of DNA, opened the door to the possibility of obtaining genetic information from fossil material, even though that material was degraded. Hence we’ve seen the successful recovery of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the discovery of the first recognized Neanderthal bones from the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856. This dramatic recovery was announced in the journal Cell on July 11, 1997.
The Swedish Expert on Neanderthals
The man who stands at the forefront of efforts to determine the relationship of modern humans to the Neanderthals is the Swedish biologist Svante Pääbo, Director of the Department of Genetics at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Pääbo led a team of more than 50 scientists who on May 7, 2010, published in Science1 one of the most significant papers ever to be published in the history of anthropology. It was the genome sequenced from an extinct form of humans—a Neanderthal.
Geneticist and creationist Dr. John C. Sanford (Cornell University) has the clearest definition of the term genome.
An organism’s genome is the sum total of all its genetic parts, including all its chromosomes, genes, and nucleotides. A genome is an instruction manual that specifies a particular form of life. The human genome is a manual that instructs human cells to be human cells and the human body to be the human body. There is no information system designed by man that can even begin to compare to the simplest genome in complexity.2
It was through the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome that Pääbo discovered that humans and Neanderthals had interbred. Pääbo has had a lifelong interest in ancient DNA, but museums were hesitant to let him use specimens from their collections. Only in 1996 did he receive his first Neanderthal specimen, and in 2005 he began to sequence the Neanderthal genome, publishing it in 2010. In 2014 he published his most refined version, finding that Neanderthal DNA makes up 1% to 2% of the genome of many modern humans. In his recent book, The Neanderthals, Pääbo writes,
The finding most likely to create controversy was that Neanderthals had contributed parts of their genome to present-day people of Eurasia. But since we had come to this conclusion three times using three different approaches, I felt that we had definitively laid this question to rest. Future work would surely clarify the details of when, where, and how it happened, but we had definitively shown that it had happened.3
Also in 2014, teams led by David Reich (Harvard Medical School) and Josh Akey (University of Washington, Seattle) “pieced together a substantial portion—about 20% and 40% respectively—of the Neanderthal genome from bits lurking in the genomes of hundreds of living humans.”4 Henry Gee, a senior editor of Nature, tells of a humorous incident at a Royal Society meeting in London in 2013. David Reich spoke on the close relationship between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. This irked a member of the audience. “Are you telling me,” he asked in cut-glass tones, “that these different species copulated with one another?” Gee said he was seized by an impulse to stand up and reply, “Not only did they copulate, but their union was blessed with issue!”5 The fact that unions of the Neanderthals with Homo sapiens were “blessed with issue,” according to the DNA evidence, demonstrates that the Neanderthals were not a “different species” but were “human-kind,” according to God’s Word.
Pääbo then makes the most amazing statement about the Neanderthals that I have read by an evolutionist in my 30 years of studying the subject. He states,
We had by now shown . . . that there had been mixing between Neanderthals and modern humans, I knew that taxonomic wars over Neanderthal classification would continue, since there is no definition of a species perfectly describing the case. Many would say that a species is a group of organisms that can produce fertile offspring with each other and cannot do so with members of other groups. From that perspective we had shown that Neanderthals and modern humans were the same species.6
Initially working with mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), Pääbo had determined, in 1997, that humans had not mixed with Neanderthals. However, when working with nuclear DNA, his computers began to spew out some surprising results. Modern humans clearly had mixed with Neanderthals. David Reich, also working in this area, found that Neanderthal DNA seemed to be more similar to the DNA of Europeans and Asians than it was to African DNA. It is reported,
“We were suspicious of the result,” Reich says. “We found signals of mixture and then worked very hard to make them go away.” He tried for a year, but to no avail. Finally, Reich and his colleagues had no choice but to conclude that Neanderthals had mated with humans. They estimated that the DNA of living Asians and Europeans was (on average) 2.5 percent Neanderthal. They had to reject a pure version of the out-of-Africa model. Instead, their model was closer to out-of-Africa-and-get-to-know-some-Neanderthals-very well.7
Pääbo was most surprised at the reception of his work by young-earth creationists in the United States. He writes,
First, there are “young-earth creationists,” who believe that the earth, the heavens, and all life were created by direct acts of God sometime between 5,700 and 10,000 years ago. They tend to consider Neanderthals as “fully human,” sometimes saying they were another, now extinct “race” that was scattered after the fall of the Tower of Babel. As a consequence, young-earth creationists had no problem with our finding that Neanderthals and modern humans had mixed.8
Just as Pääbo was surprised at the reception of young-earth creationists, he was shocked at the response of old-earth creationists:
One major old-earth ministry is “Reasons to Believe,” headed by a Hugh Ross. He believes that modern humans were specially created around 50,000 years ago and that Neanderthals weren’t humans, but animals. Ross and other old-earth creationists didn’t like the finding that Neanderthals and modern humans had mixed. Nick [Matzke, UC Berkeley] sent me a transcript from a radio show in which he [Ross] commented on our work, saying interbreeding was predictable “because the story of Genesis is early humanity getting into exceptionally wicked behavior practices,” and that God may have had to “forcibly scatter humanity over the face of the earth” to stop this kind of interbreeding, which he compared to “animal bestiality.”9
Questions arise in dealing with human fossil categories. The biblical word kind and the scientific word species are not equal and should never be equated. The scientific concept species is itself very complex and has not yet been defined with finality. Using the Neanderthals as an illustration, if we refer to the Neanderthals as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, we are calling the Neanderthals a sub-species of modern humans, separate from but equal to Homo sapiens sapiens. The sub-species classification allows for reproduction among its members. This seems to be the better classification for the Neanderthals because the DNA evidence is quite strong that Neanderthals and modern humans have reproduced together in the past. However, the plot thickens. If we introduce the time element, the species concept becomes even more complex. Some authorities feel that because the Neanderthals are extinct, they cannot be compared to a living species such as we are. However, DNA studies show that about one to four percent of our genes as living humans come from the Neanderthals, and geneticists are attempting to reassemble the genome of the Neanderthals from those bits and pieces inside us modern humans. Does that mean that the Neanderthals are not extinct after all? This issue will not be settled here, or perhaps ever. Stay tuned.
The Fossil Evidence
Regarding the Neanderthals and their alleged setting in human evolution, my extensive research on this subject has convinced me that human evolution, not Genesis 1, is the real myth. Although I do not accept the evolutionary time scale, I use it for the sake of illustration. When I began my research on the fossil evidence for human evolution, I was curious to know how many human and alleged pre-human fossils had been discovered. My search took me to the back stacks of graduate school libraries, but I could find nothing up to date. There was the 3-volume Catalogue of Fossil Hominids published by the British Museum, which I obtained, but that ended in the mid-1970s, and the hay-day of human fossil discovery came later. My search resulted in the most complete list of human fossils assembled—at least available to the public.10 This virtually complete list of human fossils as of 2004 gives the lie to human evolution.
Evolutionists have divided the human fossil assemblage into categories as follows: anatomically modern Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, Early African/Asian Homo sapiens, Homo erectus, and Homo habilis. When the fossils in these categories are all put on a time chart, according to the evolutionists’ dating and descriptions, the result is nothing less than shocking.11 Fossils that lie morphologically within the range of modern Homo sapiens go all the way back to 3.75 million years ago (Mya) without any evolution taking place beyond normal genetic variation. These include fossil footprints that indicate that bipedal locomotion is as old as humans are. Neanderthal fossils go back to 800 thousand years ago (Kya) without showing any evolution beyond normal genetic variation, and no indication of their evolving into modern Homo sapiens. The Early African/Asian Homo sapiens fossils go back to 600 Kya without showing any evolution beyond normal genetic variation, and no indication of their evolving into Homo sapiens. The Homo erectus fossils go back to 1.95 Mya without showing any evolution beyond normal genetic variation, and no indication of their evolving into Homo sapiens. The Homo habilis category is, in my opinion, invalid. It allegedly goes from 1.5 Mya to 2.0 Mya. However, Homo habilis did not do what it was “invented” to do—provide the needed transition between the australopithecines and the genus Homo. Milford Wolpoff (University of Michigan) stated it well: “The phylogenetic outlook suggests that if there weren’t a Homo habilis we would have to invent one.”12 More than 40 years after his father, Louis Leakey, “invented” Homo habilis, Richard Leakey describes the problem:
Of the several dozen specimens that have been said at one time or another to belong to this species [Homo habilis], at least half probably don’t. But there is no consensus as to which 50 percent should be excluded. No one anthropologist’s 50 percent is quite the same as another’s.13
The human fossil record has failed its evolutionist practitioners. The average person is not aware of this failure because the evolutionist community has said virtually nothing about it. Many evolutionists themselves may not realize it. One of the few public statements about it was an item in Nature in the year 2000, by J.J. Hublin (also from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology). He stated, “The once-popular fresco showing a single file of marching hominids becoming ever more vertical, tall, and hairless now appears to be a fiction.”14
Now the evolutionist community has turned to the molecules, DNA, to try to demonstrate what it could not demonstrate with the fossils. These various fossil categories all show morphological consistency throughout their long history. The fossil record does not show them evolving from something into something else. Furthermore, anatomically modern Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, archaic Homo sapiens, and Homo erectus all lived as contemporaries at one time or another. Having believed a lie, evolutionists are not able to see the truth. What the human fossil record shows is not evolution, but the vast genetic variety within the human family. Because of vastly smaller population sizes in the past, as well as much greater isolation of populations, the human genome allowed much greater variation within humankind in the past than it allows today.
A New Kid on the Block
It was the skimpiest bit of evidence: just a tiny piece of a finger bone and two outsized teeth. Michael Shunkov (Russian Academy of Science) found them in Denisova Cave in the Altai mountains of Southern Siberia, where Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China meet. The cave is named after a hermit called Denis who lived there in the 1700s. Suspicious that the bones might have a story to tell, Shunkov bagged them, labeled them, and sent them off for analysis—expecting that Svante Pääbo would find that they belonged to a Neanderthal. However, when Pääbo’s equipment started to crank out the results, it didn’t exactly match the DNA of the Neanderthals, nor did it match the DNA of modern humans. She was a little girl, but she turned out to be something quite big. Pääbo writes,
The nuclear genome of the Denisova finger bone was more closely related to the Neanderthal genome than to the genomes of people living today. In fact, it seemed to be only slightly more different from the Neanderthal genome than the deepest differences one could find among humans living today.15
In other words, the Neanderthals had a secret relative.
Knowing that Neanderthals and humans had interbred, [David] Reich and his colleagues looked carefully for Denisovan DNA in the genomes of living humans. They found it in genomes from two populations, one from New Guinea and another from the nearby island of Bougainville. As much as 5 percent of their DNA came from the vanished Denisovans.16
Since the New Guinea Papuans also carried the Neanderthal genes, this meant that about seven percent of the genome of the Papuans came from earlier forms of humans—a remarkable finding. Vestiges of the Denisovan genome were also found in the Australian Aborigines and in the Mamanwa people of the Philippines. Does this mean that neither Neanderthals nor Denisovans are totally extinct? No traces were found in Mongolia, China, Cambodia, or anywhere else on mainland Asia, or in South America. Pääbo believes that there are other human relatives lurking in the human genome waiting to be discovered.17
A Cave in Spain Makes It Plain
“Denisovans are a genome in search of a fossil,” said David Reich.18 A site in Spain has put (fossil) bones on those Denisovan DNA molecules. In 2013, Pääbo received DNA from a fossil called Homo heidelbergensis, found in a cave in northern Spain. At “430,000 years old,” it is claimed to be the oldest human genome ever sequenced, and it revealed similarities to that of Denisovans. A unique assemblage of 28 ancient fossil individuals was found in the Sierra de Atapuerca limestone hills of northern Spain at a cave site known as Sima de los Huesos (Pit of the Bones). But Sima de los Huesos is no ordinary cave. It is a very deep, narrow, vertical cave with the bottom not visible from the top. The individuals who lived nearby at that time used this cave for burial purposes—as a mortuary. When a member of their group died, the body was carried to this hidden niche and deposited in the cave where it fell to the bottom and decayed beyond the reach of predators. For many years the site had been disturbed by amateurs. In 1992, a team led by Juan Luis Arsuaga (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) finally reached undisturbed fossil deposits.19 What is remarkable about this site is that it gives us a whole population from the same age and place for study and comparison.
These fossils from Sima de los Huesos are fascinating because they show the folly of attempting to place humans in an evolutionary sequence either through fossils or through DNA. A 2014 Nature article, based on an mtDNA sample from one individual, showed that the Sima de los Huesos fossils were more closely related to the Denisovans than to the Neanderthals. A 2016 Nature article, authored by 14 DNA specialists, including Juan Luis Arsuaga and Svante Pääbo, states: “Here we recover nuclear DNA sequences from two specimens, which show that the Sima de los Huesos hominins were related to Neanderthals rather than to Denisovans.”20 This contradiction between mtDNA and nuclear DNA is also revealed in Svante Pääbo’s book The Neanderthals. He tells in his book of an article in 1997, written with two others, in which they said: “The Neanderthal mtDNA sequence thus supports a scenario in which modern humans arose recently in Africa as a distinct species and replaced Neanderthals with little or no interbreeding.”21 That finding strongly supported the “Out of Africa” model of human evolution. In 2010, Pääbo published his Magnum opus, the complete Neanderthal genome, based upon nuclear DNA. He writes, “We had shown that Neanderthals and modern humans were the same species.”22 That finding contradicts the “Out of Africa” model.
The entire fossil collection at Sima de los Huesos is nothing short of stunning. These fossils show so much variation within a single contemporaneous population that it gives the lie to the concept of human evolution. The “muddle in the middle” that paleoanthropologists have spoken of regarding the European fossils was the belief that all five grades of evolution within the Genus Homo had been represented in Europe. These five grades are now shown to be a fiction. These fossils all belong to one variable population. For instance, one of the Sima de los Huesos adult skulls is one of the smallest ever recovered from that time period while another adult skull is one of the largest. The physical variation found within this one fossil assemblage embraces all of the variation found within the entire European human fossil collection and denies human evolution one of its most striking showcases.
Chris Stringer, an “Out of Africa” supporter, believed that there were many species among the European fossils. After studying the wide variation within the Sima de los Huesos fossils, he recognized, “In spite of all the variation they display, they get sucked in with the Neanderthals. Once that happens, it becomes very difficult to prevent the rest of the European material from getting sucked in as well.”23 Stringer developed a list of 15 cranial characteristics. He concluded that the Sima de los Huesos fossils have seven similarities with Homo erectus fossils, seven similarities with Homo sapiens fossils, and ten similarities with Neanderthal fossils. He now chooses to call them all Neanderthals.24
The only legitimate species criterion is the fertility test. Obviously, that test cannot be applied to human fossils. However, by implication, it can be applied to the Sima de los Huesos fossils. They represent one local community. We have every reason to believe that these humans were all inter-fertile and represent the same species. Hence, when we see this amazing genetic variety elsewhere among human fossils, we can extrapolate and explain it within a biblical creationist context.
The Search for the Real Neanderthals
One hundred and sixty years have passed since the first recognized Neanderthal fossil individual was discovered in 1856 in the Neander Valley in Germany. Fossil remains of approximately 500 individual Neanderthals, ranging from almost complete skeletons to just a few tiny fragments, have been recovered. They have been found in various places in Europe and the Middle East. We should know them quite well. Not only do we have more fossils of them and more of their artifacts than of any other fossil group, but they also lived in recent times before modern humans. Yet to evolutionists they are still mysterious with many questions about them just now being answered.
When the Neanderthals were first discovered, they were considered to be a separate species, Homo neanderthalensis. Since reproductive capability is normally on the species level, the significance of the original designation was that the Neanderthals were considered different enough from modern humans so as to not be able to reproduce with us.
To young-earth creationists, the Neanderthals are not mysterious but incredibly intriguing. Based upon the Genesis testimony, we have always viewed the Neanderthals as the fully human ancestors of some modern humans—probably Europeans and western Asians. Hence, creationists have referred to them as Homo sapiens sapiens, or as a sub-species of modern humans: Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Or, using biblical terminology, human-kind. Either way, we believed that they would be fully capable of reproducing with modern humans if they were living today. That has just been confirmed scientifically. From a biblical perspective, they were a post-Flood, Ice Age people, specializing in hunting the large, grazing animals that were abundant toward the end of the Ice Age and afterward.
In the 1960s, new studies on the Neanderthals revealed that their skeletal distinctions were not that significant, and even evolutionists gave them sub-species status with modern humans, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. That situation persisted until it became possible to study DNA in fossil bones. Thanks to sequencing of nuclear DNA, it is now clear that Neanderthals did share genes with modern humans—not surprising if they were fully human. Genesis 11:1–9, the Tower of Babel and the confounding of human languages, conveys tremendous explanatory information. Every human scattered possessed the full human genome. However, every human scattered also carried some unique characteristics—the potential variety that God built into the human genome. The scattering and the resulting isolation of populations guaranteed that minor variations would be expressed in the human family. This certainly explains today’s various “races” (a word impossible to accurately define) as well as the extinct peoples, the Neanderthals and the Denisovans of the past. The vast world population of today and its homogenizing effect upon the genome makes it far less likely that such unique groups would arise now.
The Fossil Evidence
Neanderthals and Modern Humans Were an Integrated Population
The “classic” Neanderthal differs somewhat from the typical modern human—the Neanderthal skull is a bit flatter and elongated, the chin is rounder, and the skeleton is more robust. However, there is much overlap. In fact, there should never have been a question about Neanderthal’s status in the human family. When the first Neanderthal was discovered in 1856, even “Darwin’s bulldog,” Thomas Huxley, recognized that it was fully human and not an evolutionary ancestor. Donald Johanson, who discovered the famous fossil Lucy writes,
Neanderthal Museum Exhibit Pre-2010
Neanderthals at the Same Museum Post-2010
From a collection of modern human skulls Huxley was able to select a series with features leading “by insensible gradations” from an average modern specimen to the Neanderthal skull. In other words, it wasn’t qualitatively different from present-day Homo sapiens.25
What Huxley discovered 150 years ago—gradations from Neanderthals to modern humans—is also clearly seen in the fossil record today. We are not referring to an evolutionary transition from earlier Neanderthals to later modern humans. We are referring to morphological gradations between Neanderthals and modern humans both living at the same time as contemporaries and representing a single human population.
Whereas evolutionists have chosen to divide these Europeans into two categories—Neanderthals and anatomically modern Homo sapiens—the individual fossils do not fit into those categories. There is a wide range of variation among modern humans, and there is also much variation within the Neanderthal category. A number of fossils in each group are very close to a subjective line that divides the two groups. The placement of that line is dependent upon the individual paleoanthropologist making the assessment. Since these fossil individuals could be categorized either way, they constitute a seamless gradation between Neanderthals and modern humans. They demonstrate that the distinction made by evolutionists is an artificial one.
Among fossils usually classified as Neanderthal are at least 26 individuals from six different sites who are clearly close to that subjective line which divides Neanderthals from anatomically modern Homo sapiens. These fossils constitute part of that continuum or gradation. Evolutionists recognize these fossils as departing from the classic Neanderthal morphology and describe them as “progressive” or “advanced” Neanderthals. Their shape is sometimes explained as the result of gene flow (hybridization) with more modern populations. This supports the interpretation of nuclear DNA that the Neanderthals and modern humans are the same species—since reproduction is on the species level.
Completing that continuum or gradation from Neanderthals to modern humans are at least 107 individuals from five sites who are usually grouped with fossils categorized as anatomically modern humans. However, since they are close to that subjective line which divides them from the Neanderthals, they are often described as “archaic moderns” or stated to have “Neanderthal affinities” or “Neanderthal features.”
Creationists maintain that the differences found in the fossil material between Neanderthals and modern humans are the result of geography, not evolution. Of the 133 fossil individuals that are “close to the line” between Neanderthal and modern European morphology, all but four of them are from Eastern or Central Europe. If the differences between the Neanderthals and modern Europeans were ones reflecting a degree of geographic isolation, perhaps Eastern Europe is where the hybridization or the homogenization began.
If the fossils mentioned above could constitute a gradation within a single, genetically diverse population, an obvious question is, “Why do evolutionists place them in two separate species?” The answer is that the theory of human evolution demands such separation. Humans are alleged to have evolved from the australopithecines—a group of extinct primates. In other words, we evolved from beings who were not only outside of our species, but were also outside of our genus. Hence, the evolutionist must create categories, species, or intermediate steps between the australopithecines and modern humans in an attempt to create an alleged evolutionary sequence. Fossils that are very similar are placed in one species. Fossils with some differences from the first group are placed in another species.
Evolutionists must create species, whether they are legitimate or not, in an attempt to show the stages or steps that they believe we passed through in our evolution from lower primates. Hence, many evolutionists today place the Neanderthals in a species separate from modern humans. Some evolutionists believe that the Neanderthals evolved into (some) modern humans. Others believe that the Neanderthals were a failed evolutionary experiment that did not quite make it to full humanity and became extinct. In either case, many evolutionists do not believe that the Neanderthals themselves were fully human, at least in a behavioral sense. The fossil evidence suggests otherwise. The full range of genetic and behavioral variation within the human family encompasses the Neanderthals.
Neanderthal Burial Practice
Approximately 500 Neanderthal fossil individuals have been discovered so far at about 124 sites in Europe, the Near East, and western Asia. This number includes those European archaic Homo sapiens fossils that are now called Neanderthal or pre-Neanderthal. Of these 500 Neanderthal individuals, at least 258 of them represent burials—all of them burials in caves or rock shelters. Further, it is obvious that caves were used as family burial grounds or cemeteries, as numerous sites show. The reason we have so many Neanderthal fossils is because they did bury their dead. The bodies were thus protected from carnivore activity. Most anthropologists recognize burial as a very human and a very religious act. Richard Klein (Stanford University) writes: “Neanderthal graves present the best case for Neanderthal spirituality or religion.”26 Only humans bury their dead.
Neanderthals and Modern Humans Were Buried Together
Perhaps the strongest evidence that Neanderthals were fully human and part of our biblical “kind” is that at four sites people of Neanderthal morphology and people of modern human morphology were buried together. In all of life, few desires are stronger than the desire to be buried with one’s own people. Skhul Cave, Mount Carmel, Israel, is considered to be a burial site of anatomically modern Homo sapiens individuals. Yet Skhul IV and Skhul IX fossil skulls are closer to the Neanderthal configuration than they are to modern humans.27 Qafzeh, Galilee, Israel, is also considered to be an anatomically modern burial site. However, Qafzeh skull 6 is clearly Neanderthal in its morphology.28 Tabun Cave, Mount Carmel, Israel, is one of the classic Neanderthal burial sites. But the Tabun C2 mandible is more closely aligned with modern mandibles found elsewhere.29 The Krapina Rock Shelter, Croatia, is one of the most studied Neanderthal burial sites. At least 75 individuals are buried there. The remains are fragmentary, making diagnosis difficult. However, the addition of several newly identified fragments to the Krapina A skull (now known as Krapina 1) reveals it to be much more modern than was previously thought, indicating that it is intermediate in morphology between Neanderthals and modern humans.30
That Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans were buried together constitutes strong evidence that they lived together, worked together, intermarried, and were accepted as members of the same family, clan, and community. The false distinction made by evolutionists today was not made by the ancients. To call the Neanderthals “Cave Men” is to give a false picture of who they were and why caves were significant in their lives.
The human family is a unified family. “From one man He [God] made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth” (Acts 17:26).31
Neanderthal Burial Practice and the Burial Practice in Genesis
In comparing the Neanderthal burial practice with Genesis, I do not wish to imply that Abraham or his ancestors or his descendants were Neanderthals. What the relationship was—if any—between the people of Genesis and the Neanderthals we do not know. Young-earth creationists tend to believe that the Neanderthals were a post-Flood people. What is striking is that the burial practice of the Neanderthals seems to be identical with that of the post-Flood people of Genesis. Genesis 23:17–20 records a business transaction between Abraham and the Hittite, Ephron. Abraham wanted to purchase property in order to bury Sarah. We read,
Afterward Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (which is at Hebron) in the land of Canaan. So the field and the cave in it were deeded to Abraham by the Hittites as a burial site (Gen. 23:19–20).
Upon his death (Gen. 25:7–11), Abraham was buried in that same cave. In Genesis 49:29–32, Jacob instructs his sons that he, too, is to be buried in that cave where Abraham and Sarah were buried. We then learn that Jacob buried his wife Leah there and that Isaac and Rebekah were buried there also. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah were all buried in the cave in the field of Machpelah which Genesis 23:20 states Abraham purchased “as a burial site.” Only Sarah died in the geographic area of the cave. All of the others had to be transported some distance to be buried there, and Jacob’s body had to be brought up from Egypt. It was important then, as it is today, to be buried with family and loved ones. Certainly, if the Neanderthal burial practice was similar to that of the people of Genesis, it suggests that the Neanderthals were very much like us. It is not without significance that both Lazarus and Jesus were buried in caves (Matt. 27:60; John 11:38) and that this practice has continued in many cultures up to modern times.
The Archaeological and Cultural Evidence
The claim that the Neanderthals were culture-thin is surprising considering the evidence now available. The Neanderthals are alleged to be less than fully human because, it has been claimed, they had no glue or adhesives for hafting tools, no unequivocal art objects, no boats, canoes, or ships, no bows and arrows, no cave paintings, no domesticated animals or plants, no hooks, nets, or spears for fishing, no lamps, no metallurgy, no mortars and pestles, no musical instruments, no needles or awls for sewing, no ropes for carrying things, no sculpture, and no long distance overland trade.
The Indians of Tierra del Fuego, at the extreme southern tip of South America, were hunter-gatherers. They were considered to be among the most primitive people on earth. Ashley Montagu (Princeton University) writes about these Indians,
[They] . . . live in perhaps the worst climate in the world, a climate of bitter cold, snow, and sleet, and heavy rains a great deal of the time, yet they usually remain entirely naked. During extremely cold weather they may wear a loose cape of fur and rub their bodies with grease.32
When Charles Darwin went on his famous around-the-world voyage, he visited the Fuegians. In his fascinating work, The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin describes Fuegian life and culture.33 It is difficult to compare people living in historic times with people we know only from fossils and cultural remains. Nevertheless, a strong case could be made that the cultural inventory of the Fuegians was less complex and extensive than was the cultural inventory of the Neanderthals. Yet, no one considered the Fuegians to be less than fully human, except Darwin, who believed that they were too primitive (sub-human) to be evangelized. Darwin was proven wrong by missionaries who did evangelize them. In fairness to Darwin, he later admitted his mistake regarding the spiritual potential of the Fuegians.34
One of the most brutal episodes in human history was the genocide of the full-blooded Tasmanians about a century ago. The genocide was allowed because evolutionists claimed that the Tasmanians were not fully human. The reason their full humanity was doubted was because evolutionists applied the false test of culture. Jared Diamond (UCLA) states that any anthropologist would describe the Tasmanians as “the most primitive people still alive in recent centuries.”35 Of all of the people in the world, they were considered among the least technologically advanced. Hence, they were considered less evolved than other people. Like the Indians of Tierra del Fuego, the cultural inventory of the Tasmanians, as described by Diamond, was less complex and extensive than was the cultural inventory of the Neanderthals. Yet the Tasmanians proved that they were fully human. How did they prove it? They passed the fertility test. Although all full-blooded Tasmanians are now gone, there are many Tasmanians of mixed blood today because in those early days many Caucasian men married Tasmanian women.
Neanderthals as Occupational Hunters
The lifestyle of the Neanderthals can be summed up in just one word—hunting. To study the Neanderthal sites with their collections of the largest game animals gives the overwhelming impression that they were occupational hunters. Fossils of large animals are found in association with Neanderthal fossils at over half of the Neanderthal sites. The evidence is summarized:
- The largest kinds of animals found at Neanderthal sites are the very same types of animals used by humans for food today. These animals are usually very large grazers, unlikely to be carried to the sites by carnivores.
- Many show cut marks made by stone tools indicating that they were butchered.
- The Neanderthals had the thrusting spears, hand axes, and other weapons to effectively hunt these animals.
- The Neanderthal fossils show the injuries typical of those who handle large animals such as ranchers and cowboys.
Thus, it seems impossible to deny the Neanderthals the reputation they so richly deserve—stunning big game hunters. Especially stunning is that about half of the Neanderthal sites that have fossil animal remains have fossils of elephants and woolly mammoths. Paleontologist Juan Luis Arsuaga writes,
The elephant is the largest possible game animal on the face of the earth. . . . Beyond the physical capacity of prehistoric humans to hunt elephants, the crux of the polemic is in their mental capacity to develop and execute complex hunting strategies based on seasonally predictable conditions. Planning is powerful evidence for [human] consciousness.36
At Schöningen, Germany, were found three fir spears, fashioned like modern javelins, cleft at one end to accommodate stone points. They are the world’s oldest throwing spears, dated by evolutionists at about 400,000 years old. They are six to seven and one-half feet long, and required powerful people to use them. It proves that there were big-game hunters at that time, and suggests a long tradition of hunting with such tools. It is presumed that the Neanderthals used them.37 “If they are what they seem to be, these would be the first known weapons to incorporate two materials, in this case stone and wood. The Neanderthals almost surely used the many stone points found in Mousterian sites for the same purpose.”38 At the same site was found on a bed of black peat a fossilized horse pelvis with a wooden lance sticking out of it.39
Neanderthals and Art
There is a problem in the recognition of evidence for “art” among the Neanderthals. The presence of art is considered a major indication of full humanity when dealing with fossil humans. Not only is other evidence regarding the full humanity of the Neanderthals not given proper weight, but the evidence for art among the Neanderthals has been seriously under-reported because of a subjective bias. The reason for this bias is an attempt to protect the field of paleoanthropology from the charge of racism.40 It should also be noted that many modern people, including highly educated ones, have no artistic skills.
Prehistorian Paul Bahn, who writes regarding the attempts to make the Neanderthals a separate species, confirms this under-reporting of art among the Neanderthals:
In essence this boils down to stating that the Neanderthals were so different from ourselves that a firm line can be drawn between them and us, a view that is by no means universally held. To shore up this approach, all the growing body of evidence for “art” before 40,000 years ago is simply dismissed and ignored.41
Tools are found at most Neanderthal sites. Since they are not the artistic, delicate tools that are found in the Upper Stone Age, it has been assumed that the Neanderthals had not evolved mentally to the stage where they could make such tools. This criticism is absurd. The Neanderthal tools are what one would expect for a hunting people. Their tools are the utensils of the butcher shop, not the sterling silver utensils of a fancy French restaurant. Many archaeologists miss the point. It is not just a fancy tool that is a work of art; any tool is a work of artistic conceptualization.
Juan Luis Arsuaga states that making a stone tool is actually a work of art or sculpture. He writes, “Purposeful chipping at a stone is like sculpture in that it requires carefully chosen target points, very accurately aimed blows, a correctly calculated angle of impact, and well-regulated force.”42
The story is told of a child who watched a sculptor take a large block of granite and over many weeks produced the statue of a man. Overcome with awe, the child asked the sculptor, “How did you know that man was in the rock?” The sculptor “knew” that the man was in the rock in the same way that the Neanderthals “knew” that the tool was in the stone. Both works are the product of a mind with conceptual ability. Evidence shows that the Neanderthals had such ability.
The Neanderthals also had other works of art. A few of them include jewelry ornaments (bone, teeth, and ivory) with Neanderthal fossils43 and iron pyrites with engraving. One site had a 15-inch-long piece of an elephant tibia with what appears to be engraving with 7 lines going in one direction and 21 lines going in another direction. Two other pieces of bone have cut lines that seem to be too regular to be accidental. Archaeologist Dietrich Mania (University of Jena) says, “They are graphic symbols. To us it’s evidence of abstract thinking and human language.”44
In La Roche-Cotard, France, a stunning discovery of Neanderthal rock art is described as a human “face-mask” of palm-sized flint that has been reworked and altered. It was found in ice-age deposits. Its identification with the Neanderthals is based on its being “side by side with Mousterian tools”45 in an undisturbed layer eight feet under the surface. The rock was hand-trimmed to enhance its human appearance by percussion flaking, the same way stone tools were made. Its human appearance was further enhanced “by a shard of animal bone pushed through a hole behind the bridge of the nose creating the appearance of eyes or eyelids.” The report adds, “It is clearly not accidental since the bone is fixed firmly in place by two tiny flint wedges.”46
In addition, a flute made from the thighbone of a cave bear using the same seven-note system as is found in western music was discovered in a cave in Slovenia. It is associated with Mousterian tools.47 Mousterian tools are normally the type made by Neanderthals.
Neanderthals and Bone Tools
Evolutionists consider bone tools to be more sophisticated than stone tools. It is not unusual to read anthropologists who claim that the Neanderthals were too primitive to have made bone tools. These anthropologists have not done their homework. Besides the mention of bone jewelry above, the scientific literature records bone tools at the following sites:
- Bilzingsleben, Germany. This Neanderthal site has many hearths and has produced the world’s largest collection of bone artifacts, with workshops for working bone, stone, and wood.48
- Castel di Guido, Italy. At this Neanderthal site, 5,800 bone and Acheulean stone artifacts were discovered.49 Some bone implements were rather simple. “Other bone implements show a higher degree of secondary flaking and are comparable to the classic forms of stone tools; especially remarkable are several bone bifaces made with bold, large flake removals. The presence and abundance of undeniable, deliberately shaped bone tools make Castel di Guido a truly exceptional site.”50
- Fontana Ranuccio, Italy. This Neanderthal site contains some of the earliest artifacts found in Europe—Acheulean tools, including well-made hand axes, bone tools that were flaked, like stone, by percussion, and bifaces (hand axes) made of elephant bone.51
- La Ferrassie Rock Shelter, France. This Neanderthal site contains tools that are of the Charentian Mousterian culture,52 together with an engraved bone found with the La Ferrassie 1 fossil individual.
- La Quina Rock Shelter, France. This Neanderthal site contains bone tools such as antler digging picks and highly modified lower ends of wild horse humeri.53
- Petralona Cave, Greece. Evidence of the controlled use of fire is seen by blackened fire-stones and ashes. It would be impossible for fire in the cave to be of non-human origin. Artifacts at this Neanderthal site include stone tools of the early Mousterian culture and bone awls and scrapers.54
- Régourdou Cave, France. This Neanderthal site contains bone tools, such as an antler digging pick and an awl.55
Neanderthals and Space Allocation
The ability to allocate specific areas for living, working, trash, and other purposes is considered to be a characteristic of a fully developed human mind. For some reason, this mental and conceptual ability by the Neanderthals has been questioned. The scientific literature shows that the Neanderthals clearly had this ability.
- Arago Cave (Tautavel), France. Excavations show the presence of structured and walled living areas, indicating cognitive and social capacity in Neanderthal populations.56
- Arcy-sur-Cure caves, France. At this Neanderthal site there is evidence of a separation between ground that was littered with debris and clear ground, which suggests an original wall that separated the living area from the damp part of the cave, indicating the socially structured use of space.57
- Bilzingsleben, Germany. The Neanderthal people here made structures similar to those made by Bushmen of southern Africa today. Three circular foundations of bone and stone have been uncovered, 9 to 13 feet across, with a long elephant tusk possibly used as a center post. A 27-foot-wide circle of pavement made of stone and bone may have been an area used for cultural activities with an anvil of quartzite set between the horns of a huge bison.58
- La Chaise Caves, France. This Neanderthal site contains the presence of structured and walled living areas indicating cognitive and social capacity.59
- La Ferrassie Rock Shelter, France. This Neanderthal site contains a rectangle of calcareous stones, 3 x 5 meters, carefully laid one beside the other to construct a flat surface for “clearly intentional work.”60
- Le Lazaret Cave, France. Richard Klein states that this Neanderthal site contains “clusters of artifacts, bones, and other debris that could mark hut bases or specialized activity areas.” Klein adds, “The presence of a structure is suggested by an 11 x 3.5 meter concentration of artifacts and fragmented animal bones bounded by a series of large rocks on one side and by the cave wall on the other. The area also contains two hearths. . . . The rocks could have supported poles over which skins were draped to pitch a tent against the wall of the cave.”61
Neanderthals and Technology
The Neanderthal site at Umm el Tlel, Syria, is dated at about 42,500 years of age.62 The site contains Mousterian tools hafted with bitumen at very high temperatures. Prior to this, the earliest hafted tools were dated at about 10,000 years of age. The Nature report continues: “These new data suggest that Palaeolithic people had greater technical ability than previously thought, as they were able to use different materials to produce tools.”63 Simon Holdaway (La Trobe University, Australia) states, “Evidence for hafting in the Middle Palaeolithic may indicate that more complex multi-component forms existed earlier, so changing our perceptions of the relationships between the two periods.”64 That is a remarkable statement. Just a few years ago, we were repeatedly told that the Neanderthals had no adhesives.
The evidence strongly indicates that those who do not believe the literal history in Genesis need to rethink their attitude toward the Neanderthals. All that we could reasonably expect from DNA sequencing, the fossils, and the archaeological record supports the full humanity of the Neanderthals, our worthy ancestors.