Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: The Antiquity of Man

The Antiquity of Man: Artifactual, Fossil, and Gene Records Explored
Michael Brass
Baltimore: Publish America, 2002. 220 pages, bibliography.
Reviewed by
Tom Morrow
When I learned that someone wrote a book-length rebuttal to Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson's Hindu creationist tract Forbidden Archaeology: The Hidden History of the Human Race — a 900-page exposé of "anomalous archaeological artifacts" that suggested modern people lived on earth 4 billion years ago — my first reaction was, "Why would somebody go to the trouble?"

It has been a long time since I read Cremo and Thompson's 1993 book, but I immediately recalled how they devoted hundreds and hundreds of pages to reconstructed drawings of "eolith" stones, lifted from reports published a century or more ago, for relics that no longer existed and could not be re-examined. By the time I reached their chapter that suggested that Big Foot and the Yeti were living hominids whose existence was being suppressed by "establishment scientists", I dismissed it as a typical creationist fantasy.

Just as Christian creationists attempt to harmonize science with the Bible, Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson are Hindu creationists who attempt to harmonize science with their sacred Vedic scriptures such as the Bhagavata Purana, which describes how men and women have lived on earth for a vast period of time called the Day of Brahma that encompasses a thousand "yuga" cycles totaling 4.32 billion years.

Michael Brass, an archaeologist from Cape Town, South Africa, wrote a lengthy rebuttal to Cremo and Thompson's book entitled The Antiquity of Man: Artifactual, Fossil and Gene Records Explored. But Brass's book is not a tit-for-tat response to Cremo and Thompson's book. Instead, he mostly summarizes the vast archaeological and paleoanthropological evidence for human evolution from a huge variety of scientific sources. His specific criticisms of Cremo and Thompson are sparse yet devastating because he shows how they borrow the same discredited tactics that Christian creationists have used in their literature for ages.

For example, Brass shows how Cremo and Thompson selectively quote paleoanthropologist Russell Tuttle to imply that he believed that the 3.5 million-year-old Laetoli footprints were made by an anatomically modern human, despite the fact that Tuttle's report clearly said they were made by a hominid of indeterminate species. Cremo and Thompson give enormous weight to Solly Zuckerman's and Charles Oxnard's dissenting opinions of the Australopithecine fossils while completely ignoring the dozens of scientific papers that thoroughly document Zucker-man's and Oxnard's errors.

Brass also reveals how Cremo and Thompson misunderstand basic scientific principles. For example, they reject the recent radiocarbon date of the Hans Reck skeleton because they allege that it could have been contaminated by an intrusive burial. But even if that happened, such an error would make the specimen appear incorrectly older than its actual age, not younger. Cremo and Thompson also endorse Louis Leakey's discredited opinion that Neanderthals were hybrids that resulted from interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Homo erectus. But if, as they insist, modern humans lived on earth for hundreds of millions of years without change, these Homo sapiens would have been genetically incapable of interbreeding with another species.

I do disagree with Brass's discussion of the biological role of homeobox (Hox) genes that guide the construction of the axis and limbs of animals. Brass's presentation primarily relies upon Jeffrey Schwartz's Sudden Origins: Fossils, Genes and the Emergence of New Species (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999). Schwartz is a paleontologist, not a biologist, and most biologists I have talked to insist that Schwartz's book has serious flaws.

For specialists, a more reliable book about Hox genes is Wallace Arthur's book The Origin of Animal Body Plans: A Study in Evolutionary Developmental Biology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997; see review by Laurie Godfrey on page 35). For the non-specialist, I recommend Carl Zimmer's breezy book At the Water's Edge (New York: Touchstone Press, 1999).

But this is a minor disagreement. Michael Brass's book is an excellent resource that thoroughly covers the most current archaeological and paleoanthropological findings in human evolution.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.