Creationist Arguments: A Neandertal in Armor?

This page updated in June 2003. See below.
Creationist Doug Sharp has written about the evidence for a Neandertal discovered alongside a suit of armor. This was based on a report in Nature (Nature 77:587, Apr 23 1908) which referred to a paper by Stolyhwo, published in the bulletin of the Academy of Sciences at Krakow, about a skull discovered at Nowosiolka in Poland. I have already responded to this argument elsewhere. Sharp's page also contains some comments on my argument, to which I will respond here.

Sharp characterizes my argument as follows:

Jim Foley on responded to this article. Basically his logic goes like this:
  1. The account about Neandertal and chain mail armor is sketchy.
  2. Neandertals did not survive into the Middle Ages.
  3. No competent modern researcher, if he examined the fossils, would make that assertion.
  4. Therefore, this is a case of an early researcher misidentifying a fossil as a Neandertal.
In doing this, he commits two logical fallacies. He assumes what he wants to prove, and he appeals to whether or not something is true based on if an idea agrees with "modern" research. He implies that if a person comes to such a conclusion nowadays, he would be an incompetent researcher. Immediately he dismisses the possibility that the skeleton was Neandertal solely on the fact that it was found near chain mail armor. I would say that we would have to have the actual fossils in hand to come to that conclusion for certain.
I do not assume, or even state, point 2, that Neandertals did not survive into the Middle Ages. However it is a reasonable default assumption in the absence of contrary evidence, and the onus is on anyone who would make a dramatic claim of recent Neandertals to provide evidence for it, not on me to disprove it. Sharp has not done so, because the evidence that the individual was a Neandertal is very poor (as he himself now admits, agreeing with point 1).

I did not make point 3 above, precisely because, as Sharp says, I would need information about the fossils to be able to do so. Nor did I dismiss it as a Neandertal "solely on the fact that it was found near chain mail armor". That fact played no part in my argument, which relied only upon the weakness of the evidence, and the relatively poor knowledge of Neandertals in that era which often led to misidentifications. All of these points, none of which were disputed by Sharp, make it highly probable that the skeleton was of a modern human, misidentified as a Neandertal (point 4).

Of course, the weakness of the evidence should cut both ways. If, as Sharp says, the evidence is not good enough for me to conclude it is not a Neandertal, why did he confidently assert in his book that it is a Neandertal?

Update, June 2003: Someone has now obtained a copy of the original paper about the Nowosiolka skull, and made it available on the internet at It is, I must admit, more substantial than I had expected (and, fortunately, written in French rather than Polish). The author, Kazimierz Stolyhwo, was a legitimate scientist who founded the first anthropological laboratory in Warsaw. The paper is 24 pages long and seems competent. Much of it contains tables of measurements comparing the Nowosiolka, Neandertal, and human skulls. There are a few pages of discussion and analysis, and four poor-quality photos of the skull. Stolyhwo refers to Neandertals as H. primigenius, a classification often used at that time, and the skeleton appears to be from the Kurgan culture which existed in the 3rd, 4th and 5th millennia B.C.

Of course, the fact that the paper exists doesn't mean its conclusions are correct. As Stolyhwo says, he had written a number of papers attempting to show that Neandertals had persisted until historic times. Obviously he had some emotional investment in this argument, and probably had some bias (I do not deny that his opponents may have also). Even Stolyhwo did not claim that the skull was fully Neanderthal. He identified a mixture of Neandertal features (about half of them), human features, and some which were intermediate, and claimed only that the Nowosiolka skull presented Neandertal features in weakened form ("une structure néanderthalienne adoucie").

Other scientists, notably the German anatomist Gustav Schwalbe to whom Stolyhwo refers frequently, disagreed. We don't know what arguments Schwalbe made against Stolyhwo, so it's difficult to judge their relative merits. Still, the fact that Stolyhwo lost this debate suggests that maybe Schwalbe had the better of it. One 95-year-old paper, taken from the context of the debate in which it occurred, unsupported by later workers and even by contemporary workers, falls well short of what would be needed to confidently assert that Neandertals lived in the historical era.

Doug Sharp lists a number of possible conclusions about the Nowosiolka skull, but the only realistic ones in his opinion are that it is a modern human misidentified as a Neandertal, or that armor-making was a Neandertal craft. He admits the first is "a strong possibility", but appears to favor the second option. I would argue that misidentification remains the overwhelmingly likely explanation for the Nowosiolka skull. It seems highly improbable that Neandertals could have made armor, since dozens of Neandertal sites show not only no evidence of metalworking, but a level of technology far below that which would be needed for it.

Even if it is a misidentification, Sharp argues, the fact that a human skull can be misidentified as a Neandertal shows the similarity of modern humans to Neandertals. This is a reasonable point, and it is certainly possible that Neandertals belong to our species (though at the moment both paleontological and DNA evidence incline me to the idea that they belong to a separate but closely-related species). I suspect, however, that Sharp will not want to follow this line of reasoning to its obvious conclusion.

Creationists have always been unable to determine whether fossils such as Java Man, Peking Man, and ER 1470 are apes or humans. Does this mean that they are related to both, and hence that apes and humans are related to each other?

Sharp's web page challenges anyone who doubts the Neandertal status of the Nowosiolka skull to demonstrate it (in spite of the fact that his own page quotes Jack Cuozzo, a creationist who has studied many Neandertal fossils, and is very skeptical that Nowosiolka is a Neandertal).

I asked paleoanthropologist Colin Groves to comment on the Nowosiolka skull. Groves identified it as just a robust modern human. He agreed with my observation that it did not appear to have the 'bun' typically found at the back of Neandertal skulls, and added:

Also it has a high forehead and a slab-sided vault (see Fig.3 in the paper), and the brow ridges, though on the large side (but not unknown in Caucasoid males) are very sapient: they are best-developed towards glabella and thin laterally, and have the characteristic notch demarcating superorbital from superciliary portion. The nasal aperture is very narrow, the inferior margins of the cheekbones are horizontal, and there are deep canine fossae. In Fig.2 you can see that the median portion of the facial skeleton is not visible in front of glabella. What he's got is a very robust (i.e. be-browridged) European man.
A former paleoanthropology graduate student expressed similar opinions:
From the photographs, I would have to say I do not see a single trait that would qualify this individual as a Neanderthal, and a whole bunch of traits that qualify it as anatomically modern H. sapiens. There is no question in my mind that the individual is anatomically modern H. sapiens, and I am stunned at the notion (that I get from the article) that it could possibly be anything else.

A correction to Sharp's article: Fuhlrott, who discovered the first Neandertal fossil, did not claim that it was "probably the remains of some 500-year-old soul who had been a victim of Noah's flood", as Sharp states. As far as I know, no competent scientist has ever said this.

My thanks to Ian Juby for making this paper available. Regardless of one's conclusions about the Nowosiolka skull, the paper is an interesting piece of historical background.


Stolyhwo K. (1908): Le crâne de Nowosiolka considéré com preuve de l'existence à l'époque historique de formes apparentées à H. primigenius. Bulletin International de l'Académie des Sciences de Cracovie, (1908)103-26. (The Nowosiolka cranium considered as proof of the existence in historic times of forms related to Neandertals)

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

Home Page | Species | Fossils | Creationism | Reading | References
Illustrations | What's New | Feedback | Search | Links | Fiction, 06/17/2003
Copyright © Jim Foley || Email me