The nature of Neandertal "man," probably the most famous hominid fossil form, has long been a subject of debate. While Darwin, Wallace, and others were formulating a coherent theory of evolution, Neandertal skeletons were first discovered. While the human characteristics of Neandertal were clear, they exhibited primitive characteristics as well. As a result, they became a Victorian "missing link" to Darwinists but an example of syphlytic Roman legionnaires or funny-looking modern Homo to others. Neandertal was the first recognized hominid fossil which seemed to be more primitive than modern humans but less primitive than apes.
Today, many anthropologists consider Neandertal remains, dating between 30,000 and 140,000 years, a variety of our own genus and species—typically Homo sapiens neandertalensis. Some paleontologists, such as Steven Stanley and others, classify Neandertal as a late form of Homo erectus, distinct from sapiens. Others treat Neandertal and late Homo erectus as "Archaic Homo sapiens" rather than as a unique species or subspecies. (Taxonomists even debate the very existence of a subspecies category, so nomenclature is debatable in various ways.) All agree that Neandertal predate contemporary modern humans. They are paradoxically the best known yet one of the least-understood hominids.
Some paleoanthropologists distinguish between western Europe's "Classic Neandertals" (the first specimens discovered by Europeans and typically the most robust) and "Progressive Neandertals" found in Eurasia and perhaps in Africa (where so-called Rhodesian Man represents an early but advanced example). They typically lean toward the idea that "Classic" forms were an evolutionary dead end or variational extreme—perhaps a cousin of direct ancestors. Others view some of the "Progressives" as hybrids, directly ancestral to modern humans. Advocates of the view that Neandertal was a dead end (especially "Classic" forms) may suggest what is called the "Pre-Neandertal hypothesis," maintaining that there was a direct transition between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens (without a Neandertal species or subspecies).
Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and australopithecine remains clearly predate modern Homo stratigraphically, morphologically, and according to a range of radiometric dating techniques. The exact placement and role of Neandertal and the nature of the Homo transitional sequence remains debatable, but there is no question about the fact that Neandertals were people with cultural traditions and humanlike activities, such as ritualistic burial of their dead, group support of handicapped individuals, and the beginnings of artistic sensibilities. Indeed, one of the most fascinating Neandertal questions (totally ignored by creationists) is the nature of relationships between two possibly coexisting culture-bearing species, Neandertal and a separate archaic Homo sapiens.
Despite a few technical disagreements, including the very basic question about whether Neandertal is a defined taxon, a stage of human evolution, or a nineteenth-century terminological artifact, no one questions its hominid nature. As with any evolutionary topic which shows signs of lively debate concerning nuances, creationists have seized upon the nature of Neandertal.
The creationist view of Neandertal varies from arguments that Neandertal is an ape, a modern human with bone disease, or an extinct form of human or ape. Transitions are ruled out, of course. Anti-evolutionists find ways to read perplexity into complexity. A few quotations show some of the range of their claims:
The Neanderthal race of cave-men (based on a skull cap attested by various experts to be that of an ape-man, a modern Cossack, a Negro, an early German and several other things, including that of an idiot) has a skeletal structure similar to that of modern day men and women who suffer from the endocrine disorder acromegaly . . . occurring in about one person in 10,000.
As far as the stooped skeletal structure of Neanderthal is concerned, most anthropologists now believe this was due to disease, possibly arthritis or rickets.
It is my opinion from the research that the adult Neanderthal features that are so ape like are the result of a heavily functioning masticatory system and extremely old age, perhaps 150 to 200 years.
In fact a number of the man fossils may represent peoples which had suffered degeneration as the result of sin.
Because of sin, mankind began to degenerate, and as groups left the central society for life in the wild, they degenerated even further. According to this evidence the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon people lived near the Mid-East, while more degenerate types such as the Pithecanthropines and Australopithecines moved still further.
[Bible Science Newsletter, 1980]
Let's look at these claims separately, starting with the degeneracy hypothesis. The idea that a sinful life-style caused Neandertal morphology and that the further people were removed from the central human population the more they degenerated is not a new position. A famous nineteenth-century anti-evolutionist, Hugh Miller, wrote in 1870: "The farther we move in any direction from the Adamic center, the more animalized sunk do we find the various tribes and races." Many Europeans of Miller's time had similar ideas about the supposed "primitive" nature of nonwhites. Such ideas lie at the historical roots of the current creationist degeneracy hypothesis.
Furthermore, from the standpoint of science, nothing is known about the power of "sin" as a force in nature that can turn an ordinary WASP into a Neandertal. Creationists will have to provide experimental evidence if they wish us to believe that the wages of sin are a backward trek through our evolutionary past.
About the creationist argument that the Neandertal fossils represent essentially modern humans in a diseased condition, much more needs to be said.
To begin with, it is important to realize that today paleoanthropologists reject the shambling, bent-kneed, slouching Neandertal as a myth stemming in part from Marcellin Boule's 1911-1913 "restoration" of an unfortunately chosen pathological skeleton which had arthritis in the neck, jaw, and spine. The La Chapelle aux Saints skeleton he studied was a pathological case not typical of the Wurm I Neandertal who was normally as upright as modern humans. When Boule published his findings, the majority of scientific opinion welcomed his filling of the gap in the procession of ape to human. But time did not freeze in 1911; very soon, his interpretations were challenged, tested, and changed. Some creationists, however, have fixed upon such early ideas, unfairly denigrating early paleoanthropologists and their descendants who have improved drastically upon early interpretations. A good discussion of Neandertal pathology has been summarized by Erik Trinkaus (1978) and Trinkaus and Howells (1979).
Since the diseased La Chapelle aux Saints skeleton was atypical, it should be obvious that an appeal to disease cannot be used to explain away all the clear differences between healthy Neandertals and modern humans. Some creationists, however, seem to reject the idea that any of the Neandertals were healthy, claiming instead that Neandertal features are simply the result of certain afflictions in ordinary humans. One of the clearest expositions of this view was made in 1978 by Rush K. Acton, an orthopedic surgeon. His Impact Series article for the Institute for Creation Research, entitled "Bone Disease Simulating Ancient Age in 'Pre-Human' Fossils," goes into some detail on disease and Neandertals and therefore warrants a response.
Overall, Acton's article is misleading. Since he had no apparent first-hand experience with the data, his medical credentials end up contributing little to his analyses of positional and locomotor behavior of fossil forms. Some of his comments are true, some false, and some vague. Together, they do not support his conclusion: "Most examples of the `fossil men' can best be explained as variant forms of man or ape with an occasional example of outright fraud." Let us, however, look at his main points and respond with scientific counterpoints.
POINT: "A German anatomist, Rudolph Virchow, said in essence that the [1856 Neander Valley] fossil was the remains of modern man (Homo sapiens) afflicted with rickets and arthritis" (Acton, p. ii)
COUNTERPOINT: T. Dale Stewart, an eminent authority on Neandertal at the Smithsonian Institution, informed me that:
Virtually all anthropologists agree that Virchow was mistaken in believing Neandertal to be an abnormal individual. In Virchow's day, it was not understood how old the Neandertal skeletons were, hence it was assumed that the bones being examined were modern man with some type of disease.
Paleopathology exists precisely to recognize evidence for disease in earlier human populations and to prevent pathological conditions being considered in the normal range for those populations. This is what was done with the La Chapelle aux Saints specimen, and Neandertal came to be more accurately depicted as a result. But this did not rule out Neandertal altogether. Paleopathology also helps to show what features are normal and not the product of disease. Virchow did not understand this and thereby went too far. He even attributed the massive supraorbital torus (brow ridge), which forms the double arch morphology of bone overhanging the eyes, to several stupendous blows to the head!
POINT: "When rickets occurs in children it produces a large head due to late closure of the epiphyses and fontanelles. The forehead is high and bulbous, the `Olympian front' . . . These features approach those of the classic Neanderthal skull" (Acton, p. ii)
COUNTERPOINT: Neandertal skulls are not high and bulbous but show a long, low cranial vault with only moderate bossing. Here, Acton's knowledge of bone diseases is not matched by a working knowledge of Neandertal fossils, and so his comparison falls apart.
POINT: "[Francis] Ivanhoe goes on to make a very good case for the correctness of Virchow's assumption that Neanderthal was merely modern man with rickets" (Acton, p. iii).
COUNTERPOINT: In 1970, Francis Ivanhoe wrote an article in Nature entitled "Was Virchow Right About Neanderthal?" Acton makes much use of it in his Impact Series piece. Creationists commonly assume that, if something supportive of their view is published in a major scientific journal such as Nature, the conclusions in the article must be valid. This, perhaps, was Acton's error here.
A basic problem with the rickets claim is that, if it is to account for Neandertal features, all Neandertal fossils would have to show signs of it. But Erick Trinkaus writes:
The Neandertals were an extinct human group that immediately preceded anatomically modern humans. There was nothing in their total morphological pattern that would indicate a consistently abnormal or diseased condition. This conclusion has been substantiated by numerous subsequent discoveries of Neandertals in Europe, the Near East, and Central Asia.
Ivanhoe and Acton, in specifically pointing to rickets, note that it results in a softening of the bones, leading to bowing of the long bones and hence the stooped posture associated with "Classic Neandertals." But Trinkaus points out:
Many adult Neandertal have prominently bowed radii and femora and this bowing appears to be present in some immature Neandertal. However, it is always an accentuation of the normal curvature of the radial of the femoral diaphysis, and it never assumes the irregular curvature associated with rickets. None of their humeri, ulnae, tibiae, or fibulae are unusually curved. . . .
This discussion should make it apparent that Ivanhoe's statement that "most features of the characteristic Neanderthal morphology are the result of a form of rickets" is without empirical basis.
Since Ivanhoe wrote in Nature and creationists consider this a very prestigious publication, they automatically consider his findings accurate. However, here's what A. Bilsborough wrote in Nature two years after Ivanhoe's article appeared:
Certainly there is no reason to consider that any of the facial characteristics of the European Neanderthals result from pathological changes. . . . The available data indicate there is no reason to consider that the European Neanderthal crania are pathologically deformed.
Do I make an appeal to authority here? Yes, I do. My purpose is to show that creationists frequently misuse authority. They cite prestigious sources without checking to make sure that the views expressed are still current and were not effectively refuted later. They operate under the assumption that any published interpretation is as good as any other. Although this contradicts common sense, it does fit well with their demands for "equal time."
Acton is no exception. As a result, his readers never learn that Ivanhoe's interpretation of the data, seemingly influenced by Virchow, has been disputed by several leading paleopathologists and that their critical comments and reviews of the data were available and published before Acton wrote in 1978. Paleopathology is not a guessing game in which it is acceptable to side with discredited authors "crying in the wilderness." Science is not prophecy; it is a consensus of opinion based upon a rational study of the evidence by the participants.
POINT: "It is possible that some of the changes that occur in fossil bones are attributable to a condition called Paget's Disease or Osteitis Deformans. This occurs most often between fifty and seventy years of age . . ." (Acton, p. iii).
COUNTERPOINT: If this condition develops between fifty and seventy years of age, it would be difficult to relate it to the Neandertal populations. Few Neandertals made it to fifty. Practically none ever reached seventy years of age, and the average life span was thirty to thirty-five years.
Again, Acton's knowledge of his own specialty does not carry over to paleoanthropology where the life span of the Neandertals is widely known. We must remember that, because of their early discovery in Forbes' Quarry at Gibraltar in 1848, the abundance of their fossil remains (three-hundred-plus specimens—Acton misleadingly states "over one hundred"), and their convenient location in western Europe, Neandertals have been the most intensively studied of the fossil hominids.
A demographic study of thirty-nine burials gives credence to the point that Neandertals did not survive long enough to have Paget's disease. Kennedy states:
. . . 40% are infants and there is a mortality of slightly over 10% for juveniles. Adults who died between their 21st and 30th years make up about 15% of the sample, while those who died between 31 and 40 years of age constitute 25%. Less than 3% of the population lived beyond an age of forty years. And persons in their sixth decade are rare indeed.
Furthermore, Paget's disease is very well known and, to date, not one example of it has been found in the Neandertal remains. Clearly, this disease cannot be a factor in Neandertal morphology, even though Acton goes to great pains to argue that the disease produces an apelike appearance in its victims.
POINT: "A specialist in venereal diseases in London named D. J. M. Wright examined the collection of Neanderthal bones in the British Museum of Natural History and reported that these bones could be merely modern man affected by congenital syphilis" (Acton, p. iv).
COUNTERPOINT: Again, knowledge of disease does not make one an expert on the Neandertals. So I submitted this argument to British anatomist A. J. E. Cave. Professor Cave held the chair of anatomy at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London and is considered an expert on the interpretation and pathological meaning of Neandertal fossils. Professor Cave replied:
No competent morphologist could confuse the frontal bossing of the congenitally syphilitic cranium with the distinctive configuration of the Neandertal skull. Neandertal was a morphologically distinct type of rational human being, which appeared and disappeared when and why, we know not.
Of course, creationists will reject the testimony of Cave and prefer that of Wright. But, in order to do so, they will have to take the position that all the Neandertals had syphilis, since this is how they wish to account for Neandertal features in general. That this won't work is suggested by this conclusion of Kennedy: "The health status of Neanderthal man was probably neither better nor worse than that of other hunting-gathering peoples prehistoric and contemporary." And there is nothing to support the idea that all hunter-gatherers have syphilis.
This confirms a statement by Trinkaus, cited earlier, in reference to rickets. In fact, all the specific creationist disease claims suffer from the same problem. The evidence does not show that all Neandertals were alike in the diseases they had.
Acton overlooked another problem as well: if any given disease, or a combination, explains Neandertal morphology, then why do anatomically modern people living all over the world in many varied climates, cultures, and conditions not look like Neandertals when they suffer from the very same diseases? How is it that our hospitals do not regularly report this phenomenon?
Acton's case collapses in the face of both evidence and logic.
Now that the disease hypothesis has been ruled out, it is important to discuss the differences between healthy Neandertals and healthy modern humans. The overall morphology of the Neandertals is very distinctive. In 1927, G. M. Morant conducted a systematic statistical study of the multiple cranial characteristics of Neandertal. The study has become a landmark and points out the major distinctions between Homo sapiens and Homo sapiens neandertalensis. As reported by Campbell:
(1) The skulls are particularly characterized by the absolutely and relatively large size of the facial skeleton. (2) Nearly all measurements designed to assess the sagittal flattening of the cranial vault relegate the Mousterian skulls to positions entirely outside the interracial distributions for modern man. (3) The axis of the foramen magnum is more deflected from the vertical than in modern races. (4) The skulls are distinguished from all modern types by having a greater traverse flattening of the vault. (5) There are more vertical walls and height that is peculiarly small in proportion to the breadth. (6) As regards the breadth-length indices of the separate frontal, parietal, and occipital bones, some fall entirely outside the interracial range for modern skulls.
Although Morant's work was published over fifty years ago, creationists are still fond of remarking that, if we gave a Neandertal man a shave, a haircut, and a bath, if we dressed him in a business suit and put him on the subway, no one would give him a second look. This is a curious claim for creationists to make in the light of their other claim that Neandertals represent humans so diseased that their stature and facial features have been altered to a most pronounced degree. Creationists will have to choose which side of the fence they wish to be on.
That they can take both sides at once shows how fundamental is their desire to belittle any real difference between Neandertal and modern humans. Creationism cannot brook transitional forms and so must explain them away—even at the cost of contradiction.
The idea that Neandertal was just like you and me is not new nor unique to creationists, however. As Millar writes:
Indeed, W. L. Duckworth [British professor at the turn of the century] once exuberantly exclaimed that if Neandertal man entered a bar in modern dress the majority would not notice him. One marvels at the sort of person Duckworth drank with.
As it turns out, this imagery actually helps demonstrate human evolution. It is true that if a Neandertal were put in modern clothes he would not be mistaken for a gorilla. But people would notice the difference. After all, when someone today has an even slightly robust face and only mildly protruding eyebrow ridges, people are likely to comment on how "Neandertal" he looks. A real Neandertal would be even more obvious.
Continuing the imagery, if we gave Homo erectus a shave and a haircut, dressed him up, and put him on the subway, people would not only notice, they would move to the other end of the car. And if you gave Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy) a shave and a haircut, dressed her in modern clothes, and put her on the subway, everybody would get out and call the zoo! This should give you an idea of what a transitional series we have in the human fossil record.
The overdrawn separation between humans and apes is a creationist construct based upon the simple fact that we are alone in our species (sapiens), alone in our genus (Homo), and even alone in our family (Hominidae). All of our relatives are dead. There are no living Neandertals to share our species, no pithecanthropines to share our genus, and no australopithecines to share our family. There's just us. And until the eighteenth century, Europeans knew nothing of African apes. Prior to then, they thought they were alone in their superfamily as well (the Hominoids). At the time our religions were established, there were no life forms to tempt us away from our anthropocentrism. This is why it is so easy for us today to believe that we are somehow separate from the animal kingdom and may have been specially created. Paleoanthropology is, for many, a painful revelation.