Creationist Arguments: Neandertals

Creationists often point out, correctly, that Neandertals were human, but they tend to exaggerate their similarity to modern humans:

"The creationists in those days [the 1860's] responded 'Now wait a minute. Neanderthals are just plain people, some of whom suffered bone disease'"
"Nowadays, evolutionists agree with creationists: Neanderthals were just plain people, no more different from people living today than people than one living nation is different from another." Parker in (Morris and Parker 1982).

"Nowadays, Neanderthal Man is classified as Homo sapiens, completely human" (Huse 1983).

Actually, Neandertals are usually classified as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, a subspecies of humans, in recognition of consistent differences such as heavy brow ridges, a long low skull, a robust skeleton, and others. (Some scientists believe the differences are large enough to justify a separate species, Homo neanderthalensis.) Evolutionists last century claimed that these were real differences between us and Neandertals, and they were right. Creationists claimed that the differences were a result of various diseases or environmental factors, and they were wrong. For Parker to claim that creationists won this debate is a rewriting of history.

Amazingly, a century after scientists knew otherwise, most creationists still believe that Neandertals were merely modern humans, deformed by diseases such as rickets, arthritis or syphilis. Some, but by no means all, Neandertals have been found with signs of health problems such as arthritis. But Neandertals have many distinctive features, and there is no reason why these diseases (or any others) would cause many, let alone all, of these features on even one, let alone many, individuals. Modern knowledge and experience also contradicts the idea that disease is a cause of Neandertal features, because these diseases do not cause modern humans to look like Neandertals.

Feldhofer Neandertal

In the 1800's the famous pathologist Rudolf Virchow was one who claimed that the first Neandertal fossil found was of a rickets sufferer. As Trinkaus and Shipman (1992) point out, Virchow, an expert on rickets, should have been the first to realize how ridiculous this diagnosis was. People with rickets are undernourished and calcium-poor, and their bones are so weak that even the weight of the body can cause them to bend. The bones of the first Neandertal, by contrast, were about 50% thicker than those of the average modern human, and clearly belonged to an extraordinarily athletic and muscular individual.

Lubenow (1992), relying on the authority of Virchow and Ivanhoe (1970), claims that Neandertals (and H. erectus and the archaic sapiens) were caused by a post-Flood ice age: heavy cloud cover, the need to shelter and wear heavy clothes, and a lack of vitamin D sources, would all have combined to cause severe rickets.

This explanation fails for many reasons:

Lubenow claims that modern scientists do not consider rickets as a cause of Neandertalism because it is a virtually unknown disease nowadays. This is not true. Although not as common as it used to be, rickets has other causes besides vitamin D deficiency and still occurs. Information on it is common in medical textbooks (and even on the web), and the symptoms bear no apparent similarity to the Neandertal skeleton or skull.

Ironically enough, one of the best refutations of the idea that Neandertalism is caused by diseases such as rickets, syphilis or arthritis, is by a creationist author, Jack Cuozzo (1998, pp.275-279). As Cuozzo documents, the symptoms of these diseases bear very little resemblance to the features of Neandertals. (See also a review of Cuozzo's book Buried Alive by Colin Groves.)

Creationists sometimes imply that a paper by Straus and Cave (1957) showed that Neandertals were identical to modern humans. Straus and Cave overturned the stereotype, created by Boule, that Neandertals were semi-erect ape-men with a shambling gait and a divergent big toe, and showed instead that their posture was identical to ours. However their conclusions applied only to posture, and they did not claim that Neandertals were identical to modern humans; in fact quite the opposite:

"This is not to deny that his limbs, as well as his skull, exhibit distinctive features - features which collectively distinguish him from all groups of modern men. In other words, his "total morphological pattern", in the phraseology of Le Gros Clark (1955) differs from that of "sapiens" man." (Straus, Jr. and Cave 1957)

The exhibit on Neandertals at the ICR (Institute for Creation Research) Museum says (or used to say):

"Many Neanderthal features are similar to those in elderly humans today. Since humans lived to great ages in the initial generations after the flood and Babel, perhaps the features are primarily due to advanced age ...".

In fact, the distinctive features of Neandertals, least of all the powerful bones and muscles, seem to bear little resemblance to those of old people. This argument is particularly implausible because even Neandertal children are distinctive. Whoever wrote this presumably also thinks that Neandertals are arthritic modern humans.

At least two evolutionary scientists have revived the idea that Neandertal morphology may be a result of congenital diseases such as rickets (Ivanhoe 1970) or syphilis (Wright 1971). According to Day (1986), neither of these cases was adequately supported or subsequently justified. Both claims seem to have sunk without a trace except among creationists, who often cite them. Gish goes even further, dishonestly implying that even the scientific community accepts these claims:

"They have now concluded that these primitive features of Neandertal people were not genetic, they were pathological." (Gish 1985)

Straus and Cave (1957) made a striking comment about Neandertals:

"Notwithstanding, if he could be reincarnated and placed in a New York subway - provided that he were bathed, shaved, and dressed in modern clothing - it is doubtful whether he would attract any more attention than some of its other denizens".

This may be a source of the creationist idea that Neandertals are "just plain people" (Morris and Parker 1982). Note, though, that this is not quite what the quote says. Anyone who has travelled the Big Apple's subway will probably agree that Neandertals could look quite odd and still meet Straus and Cave's rather lax criterion. Gish (1985) distorts this quote by claiming that a Neandertal in a business suit could walk down a city street and not attract more attention than any other individual, a statement that is probably false.

Johanson and Edey (1981) extend this example by saying that if you put Homo erectus on a subway, "people would probably take a suspicious look at him". Put Homo habilis on the subway, and "people would probably move to the other end of the car". Berra (1990) states that "if cleaned up, shaved and dressed in business suits, [Neandertals] could probably pass for television evangelists."

The following quote from Trinkaus and Shipman (1992) refutes claims that Neandertals differ no more from modern humans than living races do from each other:

"Rare individuals among modern humans may share one, or even a few, of the anatomical characteristics of Neandertals, but not one human - much less any population - can be found that possesses the entire constellation of traits that define Neandertals" (p 412).

Some creationists, such as Doug Sharp (1997), have claimed that Neandertals have existed in historic times. The most cited example is that of a Neandertal reputedly found with (or sometimes in) a suit of chain mail armor (Nature, Apr 23 1908, 77:587), but Sharp also mentions a report of a living Neandertal-like human found in the Phillippines (Nature, Dec 8 1910, 85:176). Both of these reports are so short, a single paragraph, that Sharp quotes them in their entirety. The problem with these claims is that they were made at a time when Neandertals were not nearly as well known as they are today, and by authors who probably had no personal familiarity with Neandertal fossils. There was a tendency in the early 1900's to classify any skull with a browridge or receding forehead as a Neandertal (Trinkaus and Howells, Sci.Am, Dec 1979). This tendency is perfectly illustrated in the report on the "chain mail Neandertal", which mentioned that another scientist had recently classified Australian aborigines as Neandertals. Needless to say, any such claim would be considered ridiculous today. Such old reports, non-peer-reviewed and unsupported by any recent or even contemporary documentation, are equally worthless as evidence of recent Neandertals. (See also my response to Sharp, who commented on the above argument on his web page.

In 1998, creationist Jack Cuozzo published his book Buried Alive, which claimed that Neandertals were humans who had lived for hundreds of years, and that their skull features were caused by extrapolating the changes which normally occur in modern human skulls as they age. Follow this link for material about this book and related issues.

Related links

Images of Neandertals, a look at attempts to depict Neandertals.

Neanderthal or Neandertal: how should it be spelt?

Rickets and Neandertals

Neandertal injuries

A Neandertal in armor?

Jack Cuozzo's book Buried Alive

This page is part of the Fossil Hominids FAQ at the Archive.

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