A Good Reason for Evil

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What is evil? Could it have a purpose? Here is a view of evil from an adult rather than a childish perspective.

The first step in answering the problem of evil is this: We’ve got to get clear on what this thing “evil” actually is. It does seem to follow that if God created all things, and evil is a thing, then God created evil. This is a valid syllogism. If the premises are true, then the conclusion would be true as well.

The problem with that line of reasoning is that the second premise is not true. Evil is not a thing. The person who probably explained it best was St. Augustine, and then Thomas Aquinas picked up on his solution. Others since them have argued that evil has no ontological status in itself.

The word ontology deals with the nature of existence. When I say that evil has no ontological status, I mean that evil, as a thing in itself, does not exist.

Let me give you an illustration to make this more clear. We talk about things being cold or warm. But coldness is not a thing that exists in itself; it has no ontological status. Coldness is the absence of heat. When we remove heat energy from a system, we say it gets colder.

“Cold” isn’t a thing. It’s a way of describing the reduction of molecular activity resulting in the sensation of heat. So the more heat we pull out of a system, the colder it gets. Cold itself isn’t being “created.” Cold is a description of a circumstance in which heat is missing. Heat is energy which can be measured. When you remove heat, the temperature goes down. We call that condition “cold,” but there is no cold “stuff” that causes that condition.

Here’s another way of looking at it. Did you ever eat a donut hole? I don’t mean those little round sugar-coated lumps you buy at the donut shop. I mean the hole itself. Donut holes are actually what’s left when the middle is cut out of a donut. There’s a space called a hole, a “nothing,” the condition that exists when something is taken away. Same thing with a shadow. Shadows don’t exist as things in themselves; they’re just the absence of light.

Evil is like that. Evil isn’t like some black, gooey stuff floating around the universe that gloms onto people and causes them to do awful things. Evil is the absence of good, a privation of good, not a thing in itself.

When God created the universe, he created everything good. He made a universe that was perfectly good. Everything was as it should be. After God was completely done with creating everything, something happened that reduced the good in the world. That loss of good is called evil.

That’s why in Genesis 1 we read “it was good” many times. From the record we know that God didn’t create evil. But something did happen in which evil-the loss of good-took place, and as a result a lot of other grotesque things came about.

So donut holes don’t exist; they’re just the absence of donut. Shadows don’t exist; they’re just the absence of light. And evil doesn’t exist; it’s just the absence of good.

The next question is, if God created everything good, why would He allow evil to infect His creation?

Satan would be the first example of an independent source of evil. Adam and Eve would also be a source of evil with regard to the human race. They didn’t get Satan’s evil; they initiated their own. Satan influenced them–he made his own hole in goodness–but Adam and Eve made their own holes in goodness. They’re responsible for their own evil.

It isn’t that Satan did something bad and passed that stuff on to them, because evil is not a stuff. This is a key point in this discussion. They cannot “dip into” evil because it’s not a thing to dip into. When we make a shadow, we don’t do it with shadow stuff, but by blocking existing light.

In the same way, evil doesn’t cause our actions. In fact, it’s the other way around. Our actions are what cause evil-or the loss of goodness-in us, and that loss of goodness does have an impact on future actions, giving us a predisposition to cause further evil.

God did not create Adam and Eve with bad stuff in them. What He did was to create them with a capability to rebel against Him or choose to do wrong. This is called moral free will, and it’s a good thing, but it can be used for bad. It can be used to rebel against God, which digs out a hole in goodness, so to speak.

Satan and man both used their free moral agency to originate actions that fell short of the goodness of God. I’m sure God had a good reason for allowing evil. It has caused a lot of suffering, but that suffering has, in turn, also brought about a lot of good under God’s direction.

When you forgive someone who’s wronged you and you treat him kindly, is that a good thing? Sure it is, but you couldn’t forgive him if he hadn’t done something bad against you. I’m not saying that we should do evil so that the good of forgiveness could come about. I’m showing that it’s not a contradiction to claim that good can come out of evil.

It’s not good to promote evil itself, but one of the things about God is that He’s capable of taking a bad thing and making good come out of it. Mercy is one example of that. Without sin there would be no mercy. That’s true of a number of good things: bearing up under suffering, dealing with injustice, acts of heroism, forgiveness, long-suffering. These are all virtues that cannot be experienced in a world with no sin and evil.

Now the real question at this point is, “Was it worth it? Good can come out of evil, but was it worth it in the long run, the measure of good that comes out of the measure of evil in the world?” And my response is that the only One who could ever know that is God. You and I couldn’t know that because our perspective is too limited. Only God is in a position to accurately answer that question.

Apparently God thinks that, on balance, the good is going to outweigh the evil that caused the good, or else He wouldn’t have allowed it to happen. Christ paid a tremendous price, an example of the tremendous love God had for us. God would not be able to show His sacrificial love unless there was something to sacrifice for.

Here’s the problem, and this is why we don’t think that, on balance, it’s really a fair trade. We think that life is about giving us pleasure and making us happy. That’s what we think. This view is very prevalent in the United States. Our personal happiness, pleasure, and enjoyment are the most important things in life.

That’s not what the Bible teaches at all, though. There are aspects of enjoyment, but the ultimate reason we were created was not so we can have fun and enjoy life. God’s purpose for creating us was to develop us into certain types of people who were fit to spend eternity with Him. He does that by conforming us to His image by helping us grow through the process of living in a fallen world.

This is part of the message of the book of Hebrews. Even Jesus was conformed-made mature-by the process of suffering. In God’s mind, the goal of the process-being conformed to the image of His Son-is a much greater good than the bad of the evil that we have to put up with on this earth. The balance is definitely on the side of good.

I admit that this is not an easy issue, and part of the reason is that we bring some baggage to the discussion. Part of the baggage is that we have this idea that if God put us here on this earth and created the world for us to live in, then it seems to make sense that the summum bonum-the greatest good-is our immediate sense of personal pleasure and satisfaction. Therefore, if there is some circumstance in which we can’t have immediate satisfaction, then God must either have abandoned us, not exist, or be evil for allowing such a thing.

Last weekend I had a conversation with a young man about homosexuality. He challenged me with this point: Why would God create people as homosexuals if He didn’t want them to experience the pleasure of homosexual sex?

Now, of course, I didn’t agree with Him that God created people to be homosexuals. It wasn’t God’s design that they have this desire. But even if I conceded such a thing, why must I admit that-since one was created with a capacity for pleasure-only a mean, cruel God would allow conditions in which they’d have to say no to that pleasure?

When you think about it for a moment, doesn’t it strike you as odd that we’ve developed a view that in order for us to acknowledge God as good, He must give liberty to all of our passions? And if God doesn’t give liberty to all of our passions-if He doesn’t allow us what we want, when we want it-if He ever asks for self sacrifice, if He ever allows a condition in which we hurt, in which we suffer, in which we are inconvenienced, if He ever allows a circumstance in which our bodily desires are not given full reign, then certainly He must be a cruel God? Isn’t that an odd view?

Do you know what kind of person thinks that way? A child. A child sees what it wants and goes to get it, and if it’s stopped, that child puts up a fuss.

I was with a little two-year-old today who wanted to go into the house while wearing muddy shoes. She was stopped, and she put up a fuss when her shoes were removed. Mom and Dad knew, though, that there were other things more important than their daughter’s desires at that moment. Now she didn’t understand it. All she knew was what she wanted (understandably, by the way, she’s a two-year-old; that’s the way two-year-olds think).

Unfortunately, we’ve bred a society that are, in many ways, like a bunch of adult two-year-olds, grown-ups who believe it’s their divine right to feel every pleasure they can possibly feel, to never encounter any difficulty, any pain, any suffering. And if they do, then God must be a cruel God.

Now I realize that some of you might be thinking, Come on, Koukl, you’re really whitewashing this, aren’t you. How can so much egregious suffering be justified?

I don’t at all mean to brush away the terrible impact of evil on people’s lives. But I’m talking about a frame of mind that we do seem to have, a frame of mind that we are first and our pleasures are first and God owes that to us. And if He denies us our pleasures to any degree, then there must be something wrong with Him.

Now if God is a good God, and He denies us our pleasures, then I’ll tell you one thing, there’s a good reason He does so. That’s what it means to be a good God. I’m not going to buy the idea-the infantile idea that Americans have-that in order for God to be considered good, He has to give me everything I want, when I want it, or conversely, He must protect me from every injury and every difficulty. No, it’s fair to say that God has allowed suffering in the world for very good reasons, even though we’re not clear on all of those reasons.

By the way, what’s the alternative? If you conclude there’s no God because of the existence of evil, then there’s no possibility of ever redeeming that evil for good.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell said that no one can sit at the bedside of a dying child and still believe in God. My response to Mr. Russell is, “What would you say to a dying child?” What could an atheist say? “Too bad”? “Tough luck”? “Bum deal”? You see, in that circumstance, there’s no possibility of redemption for that evil. In fact, it doesn’t seem to make sense to even call it evil at all if there is no God.

But with God, at least there’s the possibility that the evil can be used for good. That’s the promise of the Scriptures.

And so, instead of the syllogism, “God created all things, and evil is a thing, therefore God created evil,” we start from a different point. “All things God created are good-which is what the text says-and evil isn’t good, therefore God didn’t create evil.” Then we can progress to, “If God created all things, and God didn’t create evil, then evil is not a thing.”

You see, those two syllogisms are just as valid as the first one (if God created all things, and evil is a thing, then God created evil), and it seems that the premises are more reliable. The premises seem to be accurate and true.

The questions we have to ask ourselves are: Do we have reason to think that God is good, and do we have reason to think that evil is not a thing? If we have good reasons to think those two things, then our new set of syllogisms work.

We can then strongly trust that when God does allow a privation of good (evil) to influence our lives, He does it not for evil designs, but ultimately for good purposes.


This is a transcript of a commentary from the radio show “Stand to Reason,” with Gregory Koukl. It is made available to you at no charge through the faithful giving of those who support Stand to Reason. Reproduction permitted for non-commercial use only. ©1997 Gregory Koukl

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The Origin of Evil

By Douglas L. Duncan, December 15, 2018

“The perplexing concept of evil eternally pleads the mind of God.”
– Douglas L. Duncan

If you have ever asked yourself any variation of the question, “Might there be a single source where the whole of evil came from, and if it is indeed a source at all, then what is it?”, both a belief in that which is unseen, coupled with sound deductive reasoning, will eventually whisper back, that what we are inquiring about is obviously some intangible, yet seemingly created thing, and such a powerful and ethereal type emergence as this evil surely is, it could only have originated from an even more powerful… indeed, totally omniscient and omnipotent Creative force.

Fortunately for us, this magnificently divine Entity came with a Manual, when if referred to, pretty clearly explains that this is indeed the source as well as the case for the origin of evil, and by studying ancient scripture, and discerning what they mean for our reality and temporal existence, we can arrive at a clearer understanding of why evil has been woven into the whole of humanity since the Garden of Eden.

First of all, evil is not a tangible thing. It is a manifesting, multi-faceted, cerebral process, which is unceasingly meted out with exacting purpose, yet always subject to termination at any point that the Creator chooses to end its existence and free humanity from its cruel vice-like grip. To get a child-like layman’s grasp on the reason for evil upon this earth, try thinking of it as a life sentence for all of us, in a federal prison that encompasses the entire planet, and you will begin to have a reasonable picture of what is really happening here. We are all guilty by association of the first sin, and evil is the iron bars of the holding cell that surrounds us, with thorns growing up from the floor.

Our sufferings on this earth, are both permissible and inescapable. They are the unrelenting judgment that was passed upon man from the time of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. It is utter foolishness to ask the atheist’s famous question, “If God exists, why does He allow bad things to happen?” They are supposed to happen because this temporal existence is a life sentence in the prison library, wherein we are supposed to be studying to get our diploma in General Studies 101, and through faith, an eventual pardon. We are all living in a fallen state, abounding with evil, and it is not meant to be a joy ride, totally free of consequences. We were born into sin and suffering, and we will die with it stuck to the bottom of our walking shoes.

The initial, manifestation of God’s awareness of evil, was the endowing of an abundance of pride, combined with free will like that of humans, in His creation of the most beautiful of all the angels. There are no detailed physical attributes recorded in the bible of this being, but he certainly was not red with pointed ears, horns, and a forked tail, and by logical association of him being synonymous with music, it is also doubtful he is a towering, snake-eyed, hulk-muscled beast. No, this lovable, pretty boy Robert Redford doppelganger, He singled out, and named Lucifer, or as he became affectionately known, ‘The Bright (helel) Morning Star’. He was in turn, given a distinguished position of authority as Heaven’s tremendously gifted choir director.

The ancient written records strongly imply, he is a master music composer and a superior orator, not a fighting angel like Gabriel or Michael. He has the gift of mental prowess and cunning manipulation, and once his pride over these attributes set in, and he began aspiring to the same status as God, God expelled him just as He knew He would be doing, along with all his faithful followers, who roughly totaled one-third of Heaven, and who we now refer to as demons, straight down here, of all the places in the universe, to our tiny earth, thus placing the epitome of evil on this very planet, for untold eons before creating us.

Of ‘Helel’ the bright one who stood behind the King of Tyre.

12 ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. 13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you… Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared. 14 You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. 15 You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you.
Ezekiel 28:12-15

12 How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! 13 You said in your heart, “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”
Isaiah 14:12-14

Whether it was Lucifer himself or perhaps a comrade even more menacing than him, that appeared as a serpent-like entity in the tree of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil (come on, seriously… an apple?), growing in the garden of Eden, the fact remains, that they were already waiting in the shadows for homosapien’s arrival, and God knew that all too well. It cannot be denied, because He is the one setting everything in motion, from the point where He says, “Let there be light!”

Either we say God is in control, or we say He is not. The truth is, He was certainly powerful enough to have just as easily sent Lucifer and his horde all the way out to Pluto or another Galaxy altogether, but instead He purposely put us both together on the same rock. So why did the fallen angels need to be on this planet only to interferingly cohabit with us? Well, that becomes pretty obvious at this point. They are here to serve His purpose as an intrinsic and necessary half of the yinyang free will concept given specifically to homosapien. Are we to suppose that the omniscient Creator had no clue what Lucifer would do right from man’s start? If you think He was in the dark about it, I am afraid you have the wrong, and not so all knowing god.


Grandpa’s Wallet

In order to implant evil in man’s thoughts, all God had to do was place a single element in his path, which in this case was a unique tree in the garden, whos intoxicating fruit, when eaten, brings the yin and yang together, and opens the mind to corruption, like the lid on Pandora’s box,

This is uncannily similar to the old story of the grandfather placing his wallet on the table in front of his five-year-old grandchild and saying, “I have to leave the room for a minute, but I’ll be right back, so don’t you dare touch this wallet!” No sooner does he get out of sight, and peek around the corner, than the child has completely dragged everything in the wallet out, and onto the floor. Had God not purposely executed this very same scenario whereby man inevitably falls, and then is forced to seek God out, He would have just ended up with more angels, who were weaker than the original ones, that already knew Him. The entire human project would have been analogous to a soft, half-made clay jar being spun on the potter’s wheel, that suddenly goes off kilter and collapses back into a distorted heap of grey mud.

The Origin of Evil

Nothing exists that was not wrought by God, and unrelenting cogitative evil exists and resides in the minds of Satan and man.

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
Revelation 4:11


As stated earlier, evil is a concept in the mind, and it is a concept that was first in God’s mind, not a tangible thing related to the laws of physics. You cannot see, touch, feel, smell or hear evil. It is not one of the fundamental forces of nature, nor does it consist of matter, energy, or the spatial dimensions of the universe, and it continues until terminated. Yet evil does reside. It takes up residence in the minds of both humans and fallen angels.

It is an unseen and extremely powerful force, which plays a pivotal role in bringing souls to a position of having to seek God for solace, and its consequence also includes a prolonged, agonizing stay of execution for Lucifer and his fallen company. This is understandably making them all the more vengeful to the bitter end. These angels were all created in the very presence of God, and because of this, there are none in need of discovering Him, nor are they created with the unique creative thinking ability we have been specially endowed with, and that God was needing, to ultimately commune with Him on His own personal level. In all of this, we are above the angels, and it is written, they serve us. Basically, we are the one-of-a-kind product of the Creator’s words, “Let us make man, in our own image”, not the image of angels, and definitely not the same mental capacity. God knows that pain and suffering make us who we are. It is just as the fictional Star Trek character, Captain Kirk said,

“Damn it, Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away. I need my pain.”

God actually proclaims He is the original holder of the concept of evil, and there are several revealing passages within the Old Testament, which Christians try hard to avoid or scratch their heads in confusion, and those who do give them attention, immediately feel the need to explain it away, for the simple reason that they cannot fathom a benevolent Creator, being the author of such a seemingly negative concept. Being the conceptual author and being the perpetrator thereof, is two entirely different things.

I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I, the Lord, do all these things.
Isaiah 45:7

Out of the mouth of the Most High proceedeth not evil and good?
Lamentations 3:38

Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?
Amos 3:6

These are God’s words through His ancient prophets, so arguing it should prove easy since they are dust. Evil exists because God saw the necessity to take it from awareness to implementation, regardless of the inadequacy of human comprehension. Evil didn’t just walk around the corner of the garage one day, and say, “Hey, has anybody seen Lucifer around here lately?” In juxtaposition to God’s ability to go from drawing board to structure with His voice, Lucifer is powerless to create anything. His only expertise is manipulation and that, like his music, is nothing more than variations on a theme.

“All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.”
John 1:3

Evil went from concept to practice long before we got here, so it appears to me, you have to ask yourself this question. “Am I going to accept this above scribbling by the apostle John as truth, or rip out this part because it is utterly ridiculous and unacceptable.

“Well are you punk?”

 

Evil Truly Exists

Yes, but not without true purpose. Think about the definition of the word omniscience. Do we suppose that God, in His omniscience, was ever clueless that Lucifer would wail against Him, thus manifesting what was previously only an awareness in His mind? It is the element of evil that ultimately causes us to seek His face, whereas with angels who know Him, there is no positive benefit to it whatsoever. God didn’t want more angels. What He has always wanted is family that can attain closer to his level of understanding, and share creative thinking with Him, and subsequently, genuine love on a personal level. We were specially created with the extra capacity to achieve total sentience. Angels are clearly not capable of this, or we simply would not be here, with them written to be watching over us.

Apostle John, the Revelator wrote that one day in a far distant future, God plans to free Lucifer from his chains to once again roam helter-skelter, up and down, and to and fro in the earth, after Christ has reigned on earth for a peaceful one thousand years, which translates to intent to use evil one more time.

“And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison…”
Revelation 20:7

Only after that shall God finally return evil to a mere concept in His mind. It is doubtless unwise to argue the point of evil with God. It is His favorite Craftsman multi-purpose tool for bringing man to his knees, and without it, there is no hope of a higher attainment. I suggest you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, put your hard hat on and go with it.

By Douglas L. Duncan

Further Reading: A Good Reason for Evil.

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Did Neanderthals Start Fires?

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BY FAZALE RANA – DECEMBER 5, 2018

It is one of the most iconic Christmas songs of all time.

Written by Bob Wells and Mel Torme in the summer of 1945, “The Christmas Song” (subtitled “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) was crafted in less than an hour. As the story goes, Wells and Torme were trying to stay cool during the blistering summer heat by thinking cool thoughts and then jotting them down on paper. And, in the process, “The Christmas Song” was born.

Many of the song’s lyrics evoke images of winter, particularly around Christmastime. But none has come to exemplify the quiet peace of a Christmas evening more than the song’s first line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . . ”

Gathering around the fire to stay warm, to cook food, and to share in a community has been an integral part of the human experience throughout history—including human prehistory. Most certainly our ability to master fire played a role in our survival as a species and in our ability as human beings to occupy and thrive in some of the world’s coldest, harshest climates.

But fire use is not limited only to modern humans. There is strong evidence that Neanderthals made use of fire. But, did these creatures have control over fire in the same way we do? In other words, did Neanderthals master fire? Or, did they merely make opportunistic use of natural fires? These questions are hotly debated by anthropologists today and they contribute to a broader discussion about the cognitive capacity of Neanderthals. Part of that discussion includes whether these creatures were cognitively inferior to us or whether they were our intellectual equals.

In an attempt to answer these questions, a team of researchers from the Netherlands and France characterized the microwear patterns on bifacial (having opposite sides that have been worked on to form an edge) tools made from flint recovered from Neanderthal sites, and concluded that the wear patterns suggest that these hominins used pyrite to repeatedly strike the flint. This process generates sparks that can be used to start fires.1 To put it another way, the researchers concluded that Neanderthals had mastery over fire because they knew how to start fires.

start-fires-1

Figure 1: Biface tools for cutting or scraping. Image credit: Shutterstock

However, a closer examination of the evidence along with results of other studies, including recent insight into the cause of Neanderthal extinction, raises significant doubts about this conclusion.

What Do the Microwear Patterns on Flint Say?

The investigators focused on the microwear patterns of flint bifaces recovered from Neanderthal sites as a marker for fire mastery because of the well-known practice among hunter-gatherers and pastoralists of striking flint with pyrite (an iron disulfide mineral) to generate sparks to start fires. Presumably, the first modern humans also used this technique to start fires.

start-fires-2

Figure 2: Starting a fire with pyrite and flint. Image credit: Shutterstock

The research team reasoned that if Neanderthals started fires, they would use a similar tactic. Careful examination of the microwear patterns on the bifaces led the research team to conclude that these tools were repeatedly struck by hard materials, with the strikes all occurring in the same direction along the bifaces’ long axis.

The researchers then tried to experimentally recreate the microwear pattern in a laboratory setting. To do so, they struck biface replicas with a number of different types of materials, including pyrites, and concluded that the patterns produced by the pyrite strikes most closely matched the patterns on the bifaces recovered from Neanderthal sites. On this basis, the researchers claim that they have found evidence that Neanderthals deliberately started fires.

Did Neanderthals Master Fire?

While this conclusion is possible, at best this study provides circumstantial, not direct, evidence for Neanderthal mastery of fire. In fact, other evidence counts against this conclusion. For example, bifaces with the same type of microwear patterns have been found at other Neanderthal sites, locales that show no evidence of fire use. These bifaces would have had a range of usages, including butchery of the remains of dead animals. So, it is possible that these tools were never used to start fires—even at sites with evidence for fire usage.

Another challenge to the conclusion comes from the failure to detect any pyrite on the bifaces recovered from the Neanderthal sites. Flint recovered from modern human sites shows visible evidence of pyrite. And yet the research team failed to detect even trace amounts of pyrite on the Neanderthal bifaces during the course of their microanalysis.

This observation raises further doubt about whether the flint from the Neanderthal sites was used as a fire starter tool. Rather, it points to the possibility that Neanderthals struck the bifaces with materials other than pyrite for reasons not yet understood.

The conclusion that Neanderthals mastered fire also does not square with results from other studies. For example, a careful assessment of archaeological sites in southern France occupied by Neanderthals from about 100,000 to 40,000 years ago indicates that Neanderthals could not create fire. Instead, these hominins made opportunistic use of natural fire when it was available to them.2

These French sites do show clear evidence of Neanderthal fire use, but when researchers correlated the archaeological layers displaying evidence for fire use with the paleoclimate data, they found an unexpected pattern. Neanderthals used fire during warm climate conditions and failed to use fire during cold periods—the opposite of what would be predicted if Neanderthals had mastered fire.

Lightning strikes that would generate natural fires are much more likely to occur during warm periods. Instead of creating fire, Neanderthals most likely harnessed natural fire and cultivated it as long as they could before it extinguished.

Another study also raises questions about the ability of Neanderthals to start fires.3 This research indicates that cold climates triggered Neanderthal extinctions. By studying the chemical composition of stalagmites in two Romanian caves, an international research team concluded that there were two prolonged and extremely cold periods between 44,000 and 40,000 years ago. (The chemical composition of stalagmites varies with temperature.)

The researchers also noted that during these cold periods, the archaeological record for Neanderthals disappears. They interpret this disappearance to reflect a dramatic reduction in Neanderthal population numbers. Researchers speculate that when this population downturn took place during the first cold period, modern humans made their way into Europe. Being better suited for survival in the cold climate, modern human numbers increased. When the cold climate mitigated, Neanderthals were unable to recover their numbers because of the growing populations of modern humans in Europe. Presumably, after the second cold period, Neanderthal numbers dropped to the point that they couldn’t recover, and hence, became extinct.

But why would modern humans be more capable than Neanderthals of surviving under extremely cold conditions? It seems as if it should be the other way around. Neanderthals had a hyper-polar body design that made them ideally suited to withstand cold conditions. Neanderthal bodies were stout and compact, comprised of barrel-shaped torsos and shorter limbs, which helped them retain body heat. Their noses were long and sinus cavities extensive, which helped them warm the cold air they breathed before it reached their lungs. But, despite this advantage, Neanderthals died out and modern humans thrived.

Some anthropologists believe that the survival discrepancy could be due to dietary differences. Some data indicates that modern humans had a more varied diet than Neanderthals. Presumably, these creatures primarily consumed large herbivores—animals that disappeared when the climatic conditions turned cold, thereby threatening Neanderthal survival. On the other hand, modern humans were able to adjust to the cold conditions by shifting their diets.

But could there be a different explanation? Could it be that with their mastery of fire, modern humans were able to survive cold conditions? And did Neanderthals die out because they could not start fires?

Taken in its entirety, the data seems to indicate that Neanderthals lacked mastery of fire but could use it opportunistically. And, in a broader context, the data indicates that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to humans.

What Difference Does It Make?

One of the most important ideas taught in Scripture is that human beings uniquely bear God’s image. As such, every human being has immeasurable worth and value. And because we bear God’s image, we can enter into a relationship with our Maker.

However, if Neanderthals possessed advanced cognitive ability just like that of modern humans, then it becomes difficult to maintain the view that modern humans are unique and exceptional. If human beings aren’t exceptional, then it becomes a challenge to defend the idea that human beings are made in God’s image.

Yet, claims that Neanderthals are cognitive equals to modern humans fail to withstand scientific scrutiny, time and time, again. Now it’s time to light a fire in my fireplace and enjoy a few contemplative moments thinking about the real meaning of Christmas.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. A. C. Sorensen, E. Claud, and M. Soressi, “Neanderthal Fire-Making Technology Inferred from Microwear Analysis,” Scientific Reports 8 (July 19, 2018): 10065, doi:10.1038/s41598-018-28342-9.
  2. Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “Timing of the Appearance of Habitual Fire Use,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 108 (July 19, 2011), E298, doi:10.1073/pnas.1106759108; Paul Goldberg et al., “New Evidence on Neandertal Use of Fire: Examples from Roc de Marsal and Pech de l’Azé IV,” Quaternary International 247 (2012): 325–40, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2010.11.015; Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “On the Role of Fire in Neandertal Adaptations in Western Europe: Evidence from Pech de l’Azé IV and Roc de Marsal, France,” PaleoAnthropology (2011): 216–42, doi:10.4207/PA.2011.ART54.
  3. Michael Staubwasser et al., “Impact of Climate Change on the Transition of Neanderthals to Modern Humans in Europe,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 115 (September 11, 2018): 9116–21, doi:10.1073/pnas.1808647115.

Further Review Overturns Neanderthal Art Claim

furtherreviewoverturns

BY FAZALE RANA – OCTOBER 17, 2018

As I write this blog post, the 2018–19 NFL season is just underway.

During the course of any NFL season, several key games are decided by a controversial call made by the officials. Nobody wants the officials to determine the outcome of a game, so the NFL has instituted a way for coaches to challenge calls on the field. When a call is challenged, part of the officiating crew looks at a computer tablet on the sidelines—reviewing the game footage from a number of different angles in an attempt to get the call right. After two minutes of reviewing the replays, the senior official makes his way to the middle of the field and announces, “Upon further review, the call on the field . . .”

Recently, a team of anthropologists from Spain and the UK created quite a bit of controversy based on a “call” they made from working in the field. Using a new U-Th dating method, these researchers age-dated the artwork in caves from Iberia. Based on the age of a few of their samples, they concluded that Neanderthals produced cave paintings.1 But new work by three independent research teams challenges the “call” from the field—overturning the conclusion that Neanderthals made art and displayed symbolism like modern humans.

U-Th Dating Method

The new dating method under review measures the age of calcite deposits beneath cave paintings and those formed over the artwork after the paintings were created. As water flows down cave walls, it deposits calcite. When calcite forms, it contains trace amounts of U-238. This isotope decays into Th-230. Normally, detection of such low quantities of the isotopes would require extremely large samples. Researchers discovered that by using accelerator mass spectrometry, they could get by with 10-milligram samples. And by dating the calcite samples with this technique, they produced minimum and maximum ages for the cave paintings.2

Call from the Field: Neanderthals Are Artists

The team applied their dating method to the art found in three cave sites in Iberia (ancient Spain): (1) La Pasiega, which houses paintings of animals, linear signs, claviform signs, and dots; (2) Ardales, which contains about 1,000 paintings of animals, along with dots, discs, lines, geometric shapes, and hand stencils; and (3) Maltravieso, which displays a set of hand stencils and geometric designs. The research team took a total of 53 samples from 25 carbonate formations associated with the cave art in these three cave sites. While most of the samples dated to 40,000 years old or less (which indicates that modern humans were the artists), three measurements produced minimum ages of around 65,000 years, including: (1) red scalariform from La Pasiega, (2) red areas from Ardales, and (3) a hand stencil from Maltravieso. On the basis of the three measurements, the team concluded that the art must have been made by Neanderthals because modern humans had not made their way into Iberia at that time. In other words, Neanderthals made art, just like modern humans did.

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Figure: Maltravieso Cave Entrance, SpainImage credit: Shutterstock

Shortly after the findings were published, I wrote a piece expressing skepticism about this claim for two reasons.

First, I questioned the reliability of the method. Once the calcite deposit forms, the U-Th method will only yield reliable results if none of the U or Th moves in or out of the deposit. Based on the work of researchers from France and the US, it does not appear as if the calcite films are closed systems. The calcite deposits on the cave wall formed because of hydrological activity in the cave. Once a calcite film forms, water will continue to flow over its surface, leeching out U (because U is much more water soluble than Th). By removing U, water flowing over the calcite will make it seem as if the deposit and, hence, the underlying artwork is much older than it actually is.3

Secondly, I expressed concern that the 65,000-year-old dates measured for a few samples are outliers. Of the 53 samples measured, only three gave age-dates of 65,000 years. The remaining samples dated much younger, typically around 40,000 years in age. So why should we give so much credence to three measurements, particularly if we know that the calcite deposits are open systems?

Upon Further Review: Neanderthals Are Not Artists

Within a few months, three separate research groups published papers challenging the reliability of the U-Th method for dating cave art and, along with it, the claim that Neanderthals produced cave art.4 It is not feasible to detail all their concerns in this article, but I will highlight six of the most significant complaints. In several instances, the research teams independently raised the same concerns.

  1. The U-Th method is unreliable because the calcite deposits are an open system. The concern that I raised was reiterated by two of the research teams for the same reason I expressed. The U-Th dating technique can only yield reliable results if no U or Th moves in or out of the system once the calcite film forms. The continued water flow over the calcite deposits will preferentially leech U from the deposit, making the deposit appear to be older than it is.
  2. The U-Th method is unreliable because it fails to account for nonradiogenic Th. This isotope would have been present in the source water producing the calcite deposits. As a result, Th would already be present in calcite at the time of formation. This nonradiogenic Th would make the samples appear to be older than they actually are.
  3. The 65,000-year-old dates for the three measurements from La Pasiega, Ardales, and Maltravieso are likely outliers. Just as I pointed out before, two of the research groups expressed concern that only 3 of the 53 measurements came in at 65,000 years in age. This discrepancy suggests that these dates are outliers, most likely reflecting the fact that the calcite deposits are an open system that formed with Th already present. Yet, the researchers from Spain and the UK who reported these results emphasized the few older dates while downplaying the younger dates.
  4. Multiple measurements on the same piece of art yielded discordant ages. For example, the researchers made five age-date measurements of the hand stencil at Maltravieso. These dates (66.7 kya [thousand years ago], 55.2 kya, 35.3 kya, 23.1 kys, and 14.7 kya) were all over the place. And yet, the researchers selected the oldest date for the age of the hand stencil, without justification.
  5. Some of the red “markings” on cave walls that were dated may not be art. Red markings are commonplace on cave walls and can be produced by microorganisms that secrete organic materials or iron oxide deposits. It is possible that some of the markings that were dated were not art at all.
  6. The method used by the researchers to sample the calcite deposits may have been flawed. One team expressed concern that the sampling technique may have unwittingly produced dates for the cave surface on which the paintings were made rather than the pigments used to make the art itself. If the researchers inadvertently dated the cave surface, it could easily be older than the art.

In light of these many shortcomings, it is questionable if the U-Th method to date cave art is reliable. After review, the call from the field is overturned. There is no conclusive evidence that Neanderthals made art.

Why Does This Matter?

Artistic expression reflects a capacity for symbolism. And many people view symbolism as a quality unique to human beings that contributes to our advanced cognitive abilities and exemplifies our exceptional nature. In fact, as a Christian, I see symbolism as a manifestation of the image of God. If Neanderthals possessed symbolic capabilities, such a quality would undermine human exceptionalism (and with it the biblical view of human nature), rendering human beings nothing more than another hominin. At this juncture, every claim for Neanderthal symbolism has failed to withstand scientific scrutiny.

Now, it is time for me to go back to the game.

Who dey! Who dey! Who dey think gonna beat dem Bengals!

Resources:

Endnotes

  1. L. Hoffmann et al., “U-Th Dating of Carbonate Crusts Reveals Neandertal Origin of Iberian Cave Art,” Science359 (February 23, 2018): 912–15, doi:10.1126/science.aap7778.
  2. W. G. Pike et al., “U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain,” Science 336 (June 15, 2012): 1409–13, doi:10.1126/science.1219957.
  3. Georges Sauvet et al., “Uranium-Thorium Dating Method and Palaeolithic Rock Art,” Quaternary International 432 (2017): 86–92, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2015.03.053.
  4. Ludovic Slimak et al., “Comment on ‘U-Th Dating of Carbonate Crusts Reveals Neandertal Origin of Iberian Cave Art,’” Science 361 (September 21, 2018): eaau1371, doi:10.1126/science.aau1371; Maxime Aubert, Adam Brumm, and Jillian Huntley, “Early Dates for ‘Neanderthal Cave Art’ May Be Wrong,” Journal of Human Evolution (2018), doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2018.08.004; David G. Pearce and Adelphine Bonneau, “Trouble on the Dating Scene,” Nature Ecology and Evolution 2 (June 2018): 925–26, doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0540-4.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/10/17/further-review-overturns-neanderthal-art-claim

Differences in Human and Neanderthal Brains Explain Human Exceptionalism

diffinhumanandneanderthal

BY FAZALE RANA – SEPTEMBER 19, 2018

When I was a little kid, my mom went through an Agatha Christie phase. She was a huge fan of the murder mystery writer and she read all of Christie’s books.

Agatha Christie was caught up in a real-life mystery of her own when she disappeared for 10 days in December 1926 under highly suspicious circumstances. Her car was found near her home, close to the edge of a cliff. But, she was nowhere to be found. It looked as if she disappeared without a trace, without any explanation. Eleven days after her disappearance, she turned up in a hotel room registered under an alias.

Christie never offered an explanation for her disappearance. To this day, it remains an enduring mystery. Some think it was a callous publicity stunt. Some say she suffered a nervous breakdown. Others think she suffered from amnesia. Some people suggest more sinister reasons. Perhaps, she was suicidal. Or maybe she was trying to frame her husband and his mistress for her murder.

Perhaps we will never know.

Like Christie’s fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, paleoanthropologists are every bit as eager to solve a mysterious disappearance of their own. They want to know why Neanderthals vanished from the face of the earth. And what role did human beings (Homo sapiens) play in the Neanderthal disappearance, if any? Did we kill off these creatures? Did we outcompete them or did Neanderthals just die off on their own?

Anthropologists have proposed various scenarios to account for the Neanderthals’ disappearance. Some paleoanthropologists think that differences in the cognitive capabilities of modern humans and Neanderthals help explain the creatures’ extinction. According to this model, superior reasoning abilities allowed humans to thrive while Neanderthals faced inevitable extinction. As a consequence, we replaced Neanderthals in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia when we first migrated to these parts of the world.

Computational Neuroanatomy

Innovative work by researchers from Japan offers support for this scenario.1 Using a technique called computational neuroanatomy, researchers reconstructed the brain shape of Neanderthals and modern humans from the fossil record. In their study, the researchers used four Neanderthal specimens:

  • Amud 1 (50,000 to 70,000 years in age)
  • La Chapelle-aux Saints 1 (47,000 to 56,000 years in age)
  • La Ferrassie 1 (43,000 to 45,000 years in age)
  • Forbes’ Quarry 1 (no age dates)

They also worked with four Homo sapiens specimens:

  • Qafzeh 9 (90,000 to 120,000 years in age)
  • Skhūl 5 (100,000 to 135,000 years in age
  • Mladeč 1 (35,000 years in age)
  • Cro-Magnon 1 (32,000 years in age)

Researchers used computed tomography scans to construct virtual endocasts (cranial cavity casts) of the fossil brains. After generating endocasts, the team determined the 3D brain structure of the fossil specimens by deforming the 3D structure of the average human brain so that it fit into the fossil crania and conformed to the endocasts.

This technique appears to be valid, based on control studies carried out on chimpanzee and bonobo brains. Using computational neuroanatomy, researchers can deform a chimpanzee brain to accurately yield the bonobo brain, and vice versa.

Brain Differences, Cognitive Differences

The Japanese team learned that the chief difference between human and Neanderthal brains is the size and shape of the cerebellum. The cerebellar hemisphere is projected more toward the interior in the human brain than in the Neanderthal brain and the volume of the human cerebellum is larger. Researchers also noticed that the right side of the Neanderthal cerebellum is significantly smaller than the left side—a phenomenon called volumetric laterality. This discrepancy doesn’t exist in the human brain. Finally, the Japanese researchers observed that the parietal regions in the human brain were larger than those regions in Neanderthals’ brains.

differences-in-human-and-neanderthal-brains
Image credit: Shutterstock

 

Because of these brain differences, the researchers argue that humans were socially and cognitively more sophisticated than Neanderthals. Neuroscientists have discovered that the cerebellum helps motor functions and higher cognition by contributing to language function, working memory, thought, and social abilities. Hence, the researchers argue that the reduced size of the right cerebellar hemisphere in Neanderthals limits the connection to the prefrontal regions—a connection critical for language processing. Neuroscientists have also discovered that the parietal lobe plays a role in visuo-spatial imagery, episodic memory, self-related mental representations, coordination between self and external spaces, and sense of agency.

On the basis of this study, it seems that humans either outcompeted Neanderthals for limited resources—driving them to extinction—or simply were better suited to survive than Neanderthals because of superior mental capabilities. Or perhaps their demise occurred for more sinister reasons. Maybe we used our sophisticated reasoning skills to kill off these creatures.

Did Neanderthals Make Art, Music, Jewelry, etc.?

Recently, a flurry of reports has appeared in the scientific literature claiming that Neanderthals possessed the capacity for language and the ability to make art, music, and jewelry. Other studies claim that Neanderthals ritualistically buried their dead, mastered fire, and used plants medicinally. All of these claims rest on highly speculative interpretations of the archaeological record. In fact, other studies present evidence that refutes every one of these claims (see Resources).

Comparisons of human and Neanderthal brain morphology and size become increasingly important in the midst of this controversy. This recent study—along with previous work (go here and here)—indicates that Neanderthals did not have the brain architecture and, hence, cognitive capacity to communicate symbolically through language, art, music, and body ornamentation. Nor did they have the brain capacity to engage in complex social interactions. In short, Neanderthal brain anatomy does not support any interpretation of the archaeological record that attributes advanced cognitive abilities to these creatures.

While this study provides important clues about the disappearance of Neanderthals, we still don’t know why they went extinct. Nor do we know any of the mysterious details surrounding their demise as a species.

Perhaps we will never know.

But we do know that in terms of our cognitive and social capacities, human beings stand apart from Neanderthals and all other creatures. Human brain biology and behavior render us exceptional, one-of-a-kind, in ways consistent with the image of God.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Takanori Kochiyama et al., “Reconstructing the Neanderthal Brain Using Computational Anatomy,” Science Reports 8 (April 26, 2018): 6296, doi:10.1038/s41598-018-24331-0.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/09/19/differences-in-human-and-neanderthal-brains-explain-human-exceptionalism

Sophisticated Cave Art Evinces the Image of God

sophisticatedcaveart

BY FAZALE RANA – MAY 23, 2018

It’s a new trend in art. Museums and galleries all over the world are exploring the use of sounds, smells, and lighting to enhance the viewer’s experience as they interact with pieces of art. The Tate Museum in London is one institution pioneering this innovative approach to experiencing artwork. For example, on display recently at Tate’s Sensorium was Irish artist Francis Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape, a piece that depicts a gray human figure on a bench. Visitors to the Sensorium put on headphones while they view this painting, and they hear sounds of a busy city. Added to the visual and auditory experiences are the bitter burnt smell of chocolate and the sweet aroma of oranges that engulf the viewer. This multisensory experience is meant to depict a lonely, brooding figure lost in the never-ending activities of a city, with the contrasting aromas simultaneously communicating the harshness and warmth of life in an urban setting.

It goes without saying that designing multisensory experiences like the ones on display at the Sensorium requires expertise in sound, taste, and lighting. This expertise makes recent discoveries on ancient cave and rock art found throughout the world all the more remarkable. As it turns out, the cave and rock art found in Europe, Asia, and Africa are multisensory displays.1 The sophistication of this early art highlights the ingenuity of the first artists—modern humans, who were people just like us.

Cave Art

Though many people have the perception that cave and rock art is crude and simplistic, in fact, it is remarkably sophisticated. For example, the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France houses cave art that dates (using carbon-14 measurements) to two periods: 28,000 to 31,000 years ago and 33,500 to 37,000 years ago. These cave sites house realistic depictions of hundreds of animals including herbivores such as horses, cattle, and mammoths. The art also depicts rhinos and carnivores such as cave lions, panthers, bears, and hyenas. The site also contains hand stencils and geometric shapes, such as lines and dots.

The Chauvet Cave human artists painted the animal figures on areas of the cave walls that they polished to make smooth and lighter in color. They also made incisions and etchings around the outline of the painted figures to create a three-dimensional quality to the art and to give the figures a sense of movement.

Multisensory Cave Art

One of the most intriguing aspects of cave art is its location in caves. Oftentimes, the animal figures are depicted deep within the cave’s interior, at unusual locations for the placement of cave paintings.

Recently, archaeologists have offered an explanation for the location of the cave art. It appears as if the artists made use of the caves’ acoustical properties to create a multisensory experience. To say it another way, the cave art is depicted in areas of the caves where the sounds in that area of the cave reinforce the cave paintings. For example, hoofed animals are often painted in areas of the caves where the echoes and reverberations make percussive sounds like those made by thundering hooves when these animals are running. Carnivores are often depicted in areas of the caves that are unusually quiet.

San Rock Art

Recently, researchers have discovered that the rock art produced by the San (indigenous hunter-gatherer people from Southern Africa), the oldest of which dates to about 70,000 years ago, also provides viewers a multisensory experience.2 Archaeologists believe that the art depicted on the rocks reflects the existence of a spirit world beneath the surface. These rock paintings are often created in areas where echoes can be heard, presumably reflecting the activities of the spirit world.

Who Made the Cave and Rock Art?

Clearly, the first human artists were sophisticated. But, when did this sophisticated behavior emerge? The discovery of art in Europe and Asia indicates that the first humans who made their way out of Africa as they migrated around the world carried with them the capacity for art. To put it another way, the capacity for art did not emerge in humans after they reached Europe, but instead was an intrinsic part of human nature before we began to make our way around the world.

The discovery of symbolic artifacts as old as 80,000 years in age in caves in South Africa(artistic expression is a manifestation of the capacity to represent the world with symbols) and the dating of the oldest San rock art at 70,000 years in age adds support to this view.

Linguist Shigeru Miyagawa points out that genetic evidence indicates that the San separated from the rest of humanity around 125,000 years ago. While the San remained in Africa, the group of humans who separated from the San and made their way into Asia and Europe came from a separate branch of humanity. And yet, the art produced by the San displays the same multisensory character as the art found in Europe and Asia. To say it another way, the rock art of the San and the cave art in Europe and Asia display unifying characteristics. These unifying features indicate that the art share the same point of origin. Given that the data seems to indicate that humanity’s origin is about 150,000 years ago, it appears that the origin of art coincides closely to the time that modern humans appear in the fossil record.3

Cave Art and Rock Evince the Biblical View of Human Nature

The sophistication of the earliest art highlights the exceptional nature of the first artists—modern humans, people just like you and me. The capacity to produce art reflects the capacity for symbolism—a quality that appears to be unique to human beings, a quality contributing to our advanced cognitive abilities, and a quality that contributes to our exceptional nature. As a Christian, I view symbolism (and artistic expression) as one of the facets of God’s image. And, as such, I would assert that the latest insights on cave art provide scientific credibility for the biblical view of human nature.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Shigeru Miyagawa, Cora Lesure, and Vitor A. Nóbrega, “Cross-Modality Information Transfer: A Hypothesis about the Relationship among Prehistoric Cave Paintings, Symbolic Thinking, and the Emergence of Language,” Frontiers in Psychology 9 (February 20, 2018): 115, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00115.
  2. Francis Thackery, “Eland, Hunters and Concepts of ‘Symapthetic Control’: Expressed in Southern African Rock Art,’ Cambridge Archaeological Journal 15 (2005): 27–35, doi:10.1017/S0959774305000028.
  3. Miyagawa et al., “Cross-Modality Information Transfer,” 115.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/05/23/sophisticated-cave-art-evinces-the-image-of-god

Did Neanderthals Produce Cave Paintings?

didneanderthalsproducecavepaintings

BY FAZALE RANA – APRIL 25, 2018

One time when our kids were little, my wife and I discovered that someone had drawn a picture on one of the walls in our house. Though all of our children professed innocence, it was easy to figure out who the culprit was, because the little artist also wrote the first letter of her name on the wall next to her “masterpiece.”

If only archaeologists had it as easy as my wife and me when it comes to determining who made the ancient artwork on the cave walls in Europe. Most anthropologists think that modern humans produced the art. But, a growing minority of scientists think that Neanderthals were the artists, not modern humans. If anthropologists only had some initials to go by.

In the absence of a “smoking gun,” archaeologists believe they now have an approach that will help them determine the artists’ identity. Instead of searching for initials, researchers are trying to indirectly determine who the artists were by dating the cave art. They hope this approach will work because modern humans did not make their way into Europe until around 40,000 years ago. And Neanderthals disappeared around that same time. So, knowing the age of the art would help narrow down the artists’ identity.

Recently, a team from the UK and Spain have applied this new dating method to art found in the caves of Iberia (southwest corner of Europe). And based on the age of the art, they think that the paintings on the cave walls were produced by Neanderthals, not modern humans.1

Artistic expression reflects a capacity for symbolism. And many people view symbolism as a quality unique to human beings, contributing to our advanced cognitive abilities and reflecting our exceptional nature. In fact, as a Christian, I see symbolism as a manifestation of the image of God. Yet, if Neanderthals possessed symbolic capabilities, such a quality would undermine human exceptionalism (and with it the biblical view of human nature), rendering human beings nothing more than another hominin.

Limitations of Dating Cave Art

Dating cave art is challenging, to say the least. Typically, archaeologists will either: (1) date the remains associated with the cave art and try to establish a correlation, or (2) attempt to directly date the cave paintings using carbon-14 measurements of the pigments and charcoal used to make the art. Both approaches have limitations.

In 2012, researchers from the UK and Spain employed a new technique to date the art found on the walls in 11 caves located in northwest Spain.2 This dating method measures the age of the calcite deposits beneath the cave paintings and those that formed over the artwork, once the paintings had been created. As water flows down cave walls, it deposits calcite. When calcite forms it contains trace amounts of U-238. This isotope decays into Th-230. Normally, detection of such low quantities of these isotopes would require extremely large samples. The researchers discovered that by using accelerator mass spectrometry they could get by with 10-milligram samples.

By dating the calcite samples, they produced minimum and maximum ages for the cave paintings. While most of the 50 samples they took dated to around 25,000 years in age (or more recent than that), three were significantly older. They found a claviform-like symbol that dated to 31,000 years in age. They also found hand stencils that were 37,000 years old and, finally, a red disk that dated to 41,000 years in age.

Most anthropologists believe modern humans made their way into Europe around 40,000 years ago, prompting researchers to suggest that maybe Neanderthals created some of the cave art, “because of the 40.8 ky date for the disk is a minimum age, it cannot be ruled out that the earliest paintings were symbolic expressions of Neanderthals, which were present at Cantabrian Spain until at least 42 ka.”3

Dating the Art from Three Cave Sites in Iberia

Recently, this research team applied the same U-Th dating method to the art found in three cave sites in Iberia: (1) La Pasiega, which houses paintings of animals, linear signs, claviform signs, and dots; (2) Ardales, which contains about 1,000 paintings of animals, along with dots, discs, lines, geometric shapes, and hand stencils; and (3) Maltravieso, which displays a set of hand stencils and geometric designs.

The research team took a total of 53 samples from 25 carbonate formations associated with the cave art in these three cave sites. While most of the samples dated to 40,000 years old or less, three measurements produced minimum ages of around 65,000 years in age, including: (1) red scalariform from La Pasiega, (2) red areas from Ardales, and (3) a hand stencil from Maltravieso. On the basis of the three measurements, the team concluded that the art must have been made by Neanderthals because modern humans had not made their way into Iberia at that time. In other words, Neanderthals made art, just like modern humans did.

Are These Results Valid?

At first glance, it seems like the research team has a compelling case for Neanderthal art. Yet, careful examination of the U-Th method and the results raise some concerns.

First, it is not clear if the U-Th method yields reliable results. Recently, a team from France and the US questioned the application of the U-Th method to date cave art.4 Like all radiometric dating methods, the U-Th method only works if the system to be age-dated is closed. In other words, once the calcite deposit forms, the U-Th method will only yield reliable results if none of the U or Th moves in or out of the deposit. Unfortunately, it does not appear as if the calcite films are closed systems. The calcite films form as a result of hydrological activity in the cave. Once a calcite film forms, water will continue to flow over its surface, leeching out U (because U is much more water soluble than Th). This process will make it seem as if the calcite film and, hence, the underlying artwork is much older than it actually is.

In the face of this criticism, the team from the UK and Spain assert the reliability of their method because, for a few of the calcite deposits, they sampled the outermost surface, the middle of the deposit, and the innermost region. Measurements of these three samples gave ages that matched the expected chronology, with the innermost layer measuring older than the outermost surface. But, as the researchers from France and the US (who challenge the validity of the U-Th method to date cave art) point out, this sampling protocol doesn’t ensure that the calcite is a closed system.

Additionally, critics from France and the US identified several examples of cave art dated by both carbon-14 methods and U-Th methods, noting that the carbon-14 method consistently gives much younger ages than the U-Th method. This difference is readily explained if the calcite is an open system.

Secondly, it seems more plausible that the 65,000-year-old dates are outliers. It is important to note that of the 53 samples measured, only three gave age-dates of 65,000 years. The remaining samples gave dates much younger, typically around 40,000 years in age. Given the concerns about the calcite being an open system, should the 65,000-year-old samples be viewed as mere outliers?

Compounding this concern is the fact that samples taken from the same piece of art give discordant dates, with one of the samples dating to 65,000 years in age and the other two samples dating to be much younger. The team from the UK and Spain argue that the artwork was produced in a patchwork manner. But this explanation does not account for the observation that the artwork appears to be a unified piece.

What Does Neanderthal Biology Say?

The archaeological record is not the only evidence we have available to us to assess Neanderthals’ capacity for symbolism (and advanced cognitive abilities). Scientists can also glean insight from Neanderthal biology.

As I discuss in Who Was Adam?, comparisons of the genomes of Neanderthals and modern humans reveal important differences in a number of genes related to neural development, suggesting that there are cognitive differences between the two species. Additionally, the fossil remains of Neanderthals indicate that their brain development s took a different trajectory than ours after birth. As a result, it doesn’t appear as if Neanderthals experienced much of an adolescence (which is the time that significant brain development takes place in modern humans). Finally, the brain structure of Neanderthals indicates that these creatures lacked advanced cognitive capacity and the hand-eye coordination needed to make art.

On the basis of concerns about the validity of the U-Th method when applied to dating calcite films and Neanderthal brain biology, I remain unconvinced that Neanderthals made cave art, let alone had the capacity to do so. So, to me, it appears as if modern humans are, indeed, the “guilty party.” The entire body of evidence still indicates that they are the ones who painted the walls of caves throughout the world. Though, I doubt either my wife or I will have these early artists scrub down the cave walls as punishment. The cave art is much too precious.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. D. L. Hoffmann et al., “U-Th Dating of Carbonate Crusts Reveals Neanderthal Origin of Iberian Cave Art,” Science 359 (February 23, 2018): 912–15, doi:10.1126/science.aap7778.
  2. A. W. G. Pike et al., “U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain,” Science 336 (June 15, 2012): 1409–13, doi:10.1126/science.1219957.
  3. A. W. G. Pike et al., “U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art.”
  4. Georges Sauvet et al., “Uranium-Thorium Dating Method and Paleolithic Rock Art,” Quaternary International432 (2017): 86–92, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2015.03.053.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/04/25/did-neanderthals-produce-cave-paintings

Rabbit Burrowing Churns Claims about Neanderthal Burials

rabbitburrowingchurns

BY FAZALE RANA – FEBRUARY 7, 2018

As a kid, watching cartoons was one of the highlights of my afternoons. As soon as I arrived home from school, I would plop down in front of the TV. Among my favorites were the short features produced by Warner Brothers. What a wonderful cast of characters: Daffy Duck, Sylvester and Tweety, Yosemite Sam, the Tasmanian Devil, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. As much as I loved to watch their shenanigans, none of them compared to the indomitable Bugs Bunny. That “wascally wabbit” (to quote Elmer Fudd) always seemed to create an upheaval everywhere he went.

Recently, a research team from France has come to realize that Bugs Bunny isn’t the only rabbit to make a mess of things. These investigators learned that burrowing rabbits have created an upheaval—literally—at Neanderthal archaeological sites, casting doubt on claims that the hominins displayed advanced sophisticated cognitive abilities.1

Researchers from France unearthed this problem while studying the Regourdou Neanderthal site in Dordogne. Neanderthal bones and stone artifacts, along with animal remains, were recovered from this cave site in 1954. Unfortunately, the removal of the remains by archaeologists was done in a nonscientific manner—by today’s standards.

Based on the arrangement of the Neanderthal remains, lithic artifacts, and cave bear bones at the site, anthropologists initially concluded that one of the Neanderthals found at Regourdou was deliberately buried, indicating that these hominids must have engaged in complex funerary practices. Many anthropologists consider complex funeral activities to reflect one of the most sophisticated examples of symbolic behavior. If so, then Neanderthals must have possessed similar cognitive abilities to modern humans, undermining the scientific case for human exceptionalism and, along with it, casting aspersions on the biblical view of humanity.

Questions about Neanderthal Burials

Yet, more recent analysis of the Regourdou site has raised questions about Neanderthal burial practices. One piece of evidence cited by anthropologists for the funerary burial at this French cave site was the recovery of bear remains associated with a nearly complete Neanderthal specimen. Some anthropologists argued that Neanderthals used the cave bear bones to construct a funerary structure.

But anthropologists have started to question this interpretation. Evidence mounts that this cave site functioned primarily as a den for cave bears, with the accumulation of cave bear bones largely stemming from attritional mortality—not the deliberate activity of Neanderthals.

Rabbits at Regourdou

Anthropologists have also recovered a large quantity of rabbit remains at the Regourdou site. At first, these rabbit bones were taken as evidence that the hominids had the cognitive capacity to hunt and trap small game—something only modern humans were thought to be able to do.

One species found at the Regourdou cave site is the European rabbit (Ochotona cuniculus). These rabbits dig interconnected burrows (called a warren) to avoid predation and harsh climatic conditions. Depending on the sediment, the warren architecture can be deep and complex.

Because the researchers discovered over 10,000 rabbit bones at the Regourdou site, they became concerned that the burrowing behavior of these creatures may have compromised the integrity of the site. To address this issue, they used radiocarbon dating to age-date the rabbit remains. They discovered that the rabbit bones were significantly younger than the sediments harboring them. They also noted that the skeletal parts, breakage pattern of the bones, and surface modification of the rabbit remains indicate that these creatures died within the warrens due to natural causes, negating the claim that Neanderthals hunted small game. This set of observations indicates that the rabbits burrowed and lived in warrens in the Regourdou site, well after the cave deposits formed.

Perhaps of greatest concern associated with this finding is the uncertainty it creates about the integrity of sedimentary layers, because the rabbit burrows cross and perturb several layers, resulting in the mixing of bones and artifacts from one layer to the next. This bioturbation appears to have transported artifacts and bones from the upper layers to the lower layers.

Upheaval of the cave layers caused by the rabbits means that grave goods associated with Neanderthal skeletons may not have been intentionally placed with the body at the time of death. Instead, they may just have happened to wind up next to the hominin remains due to burrowing activity.

Such tumult may not be limited to the Regourdou cave site. These creatures live throughout France and the Iberian Peninsula, raising questions about the influence that the rabbits may have had on the integrity of other archaeological cave sites in France and Spain. For example, it is not hard to envision scenarios in which rabbit burrowing caused mixing at other cave sites, resulting in the accidental association of Neanderthal remains with artifacts initially deposited in upper cave layers made by modern humans who occupied the cave sites after Neanderthals. If so, this association could mistakenly lead anthropologists to conclude that Neanderthals had advanced cognitive abilities, when in fact they did not. While Bugs Bunny’s antics may amuse us, it is no laughing matter to consider the possible impact rabbits may have had on scientific findings.

Only Human Beings Are Exceptional

Even though some anthropologists assert that Neanderthals possessed advanced cognitive abilities like those of modern humans, ongoing scientific scrutiny of the archaeological evidence consistently fails to substantiate those claims. This failure is clearly the case with the Regourdou burial. No doubt, Neanderthals were fascinating creatures. But there is no compelling scientific reason to think that their behavioral capacity threatens human exceptionalism and the notion that human beings were created to bear God’s image.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Maxime Pelletier et al., “Rabbits in the Grave! Consequences of Bioturbation on the Neandertal ‘Burial’ at Regourdou (Montignac-sur-Vezérè, Dordogne)” Journal of Human Evolution 110 (September 2017): 1–17, doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2017.04.001.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/02/07/rabbit-burrowing-churns-claims-about-neanderthal-burials

Did Neanderthals Self-Medicate?

neanderthalselfmedicate

BY FAZALE RANA – JANUARY 24, 2018

Calculus is hard.

But it is worth studying because it is such a powerful tool.

Oh, wait!

You don’t think I’m referring to math, do you? I’m not. I’m referring to dental calculus, the hardened plaque that forms on teeth.

Recently, researchers from Australia and the UK studied the calculus scraped from the teeth of Neanderthals and compared it to the calculus taken from the teeth of modern humans and chimpanzees (captured from the wild) with the hope of understanding the diets and behaviors of these hominins.1 The researchers concluded that this study supports the view that Neanderthals had advanced cognitive abilities like that of modern humans. If so, this conclusion creates questions and concerns about the credibility of the biblical view of humanity; specifically, the idea that we stand apart from all other creatures on Earth because we are uniquely made in God’s image. Ironically, careful assessment of this work actually supports the notion of human exceptionalism, and with it provides scientific evidence that human beings are made in God’s image.

This study built upon previous work in which researchers discovered that they could extract trace amounts of different types of compounds from the dental calculus of Neanderthals and garner insights about their dietary practices.2 Scientists have learned that when plaque forms, it traps food particles and microbes from the mouth and respiratory tract. In the most recent study, Australian and British scientists extracted ancient DNA from the plaque samples isolated from the teeth of Neanderthals recovered in Spy Cave (Belgium) and El Sidrón (Spain). These specimens age-date between 42,000 and 50,000 years in age. By sequencing the ancient DNA in the samples and comparing the sequences to known sequences in databases, the research team determined the types of food Neanderthals ate and the microorganisms that infected their mouths.

Neanderthal Diets

Based on the ancient DNA recovered from the calcified dental plaque, the researchers concluded that the Neanderthals unearthed at Spy Cave and El Sidrón consumed different diets. The calculus samples taken from the Spy Cave specimens harbored DNA from the woolly rhinoceros and European wild sheep. It also contained mushroom DNA. On the other hand, the ancient DNA samples taken from the dental plaque of the El Sidrón specimens came from pine nuts, moss, mushrooms, and tree bark. These results suggest that the Spy Neanderthals consumed a diet comprised largely of meat, while the El Sidrón hominins ate a vegetarian diet.

The microbial DNA recovered from the dental calculus confirmed the dietary differences between the two Neanderthal groups. In Neanderthals, and in modern humans, the composition of the microbiota in the mouth is dictated in part by the diet, varying in predictable ways for meat-based and plant-based diets, respectively.

Did Neanderthals Consume Medicinal Plants?

One of the Neanderthals from El Sidrón—a teenage boy—had a large dental abscess. The researchers recovered DNA from his dental calculus showing that he also suffered from a gut parasite that causes diarrhea. But, instead of suffering without any relief, it looks as if this sick individual was consuming plants with medicinal properties. Researchers recovered DNA from poplar plants, which produce salicylic acid, a painkiller, and DNA from a fungus that produces penicillin, an antibiotic. Interestingly, the other El Sidrón specimen showed no evidence of ancient DNA from poplar or the fungus, Penicillium.

If Neanderthals were able to self-medicate, the researchers conclude that these hominins must have had advanced cognitive abilities, similar to those of modern humans. One of the members of the research team, Alan Cooper, muses, “Apparently, Neandertals possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants and their various anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and seem to be self-medicating. The use of antibiotics would be very surprising, as this is more than 40,000 years before we developed penicillin. Certainly, our findings contrast markedly with the rather simplistic view of our ancient relatives in popular imagination.”3

Though intriguing, one could argue that the research team’s conclusion about Neanderthals self-medicating is a bit of an overreach, particularly the idea that Neanderthals were consuming a specific fungus as a source of antibiotics. Given that the El Sidrón Neanderthals were eating a vegetarian diet, it isn’t surprising that they occasionally consumed fungus because Penicillium grows naturally on plant material when it becomes moldy. This conclusion is based on a single Neanderthal specimen; thus, it could simply be a coincidence that the sick Neanderthal teenager consumed the fungus. In fact, it would be virtually impossible for Neanderthals to intentionally eat penicillin-producing fungi because, according to anthropologist Hannah O’Regan from the University of Nottingham, “It’s difficult to tell these specific moulds apart unless you have a hand lens.”4

Zoopharmacognosy

But even if Neanderthals were self-medicating, this behavior is not as remarkable as it might initially seem. Many animals self-medicate. In fact, this phenomenon is called zoopharmacognosy.5 For example, chimpanzees will consume the leaves of certain plants to make themselves vomit, in order to rid themselves of intestinal parasites. So, instead of viewing the consumption of poplar plants and fungus by Neanderthals as evidence for advanced behavior, perhaps, it would be better to regard it as one more instance of zoopharmacognosy.

Medicine and Human Exceptionalism

The difference between the development and use of medicine by modern humans and the use of medicinal plants by Neanderthals (assuming they did employ plants for medicinal purposes) is staggering. Neanderthals existed on Earth longer than modern humans have. And at the point of their extinction, the best that these creatures could do is incorporate into their diets a few plants that produced compounds that were natural painkillers or antibiotics. On the other hand, though on Earth for only around 150,000 years, modern humans have created an industrial-pharmaceutical complex that routinely develops and dispenses medicines based on a detailed understanding of chemistry and biology.

As paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall and linguist Noam Chomsky (along with other collaborators) put it:

“Our species was born in a technologically archaic context . . . . Then, within a remarkably short space of time, art was invented, cities were born, and people had reached the moon.”6

And biomedical advance has yielded an unimaginably large number of drugs that improve the quality of our lives. In other words, comparing the trajectories of Neanderthal and modern human technologies highlights profound differences between us—differences that affirm modern humans really are exceptional, echoing the biblical view that human beings are truly made in God’s image.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Laura S. Weyrich et al., “Neanderthal Behavior, Diet, and Disease Inferred from Ancient DNA in Dental Calculus,” Nature 544 (April 20, 2017): 357–61, doi:10.1038/nature21674.
  2. Karen Hardy et al., “Neanderthal Medics? Evidence for Food, Cooking, and Medicinal Plants Entrapped in Dental Calculus,” Naturwissenschaften 99 (August 2012): 617–26, doi:10.1007/s00114-012-0942-0.
  3. “Dental Plaque DNA Shows Neandertals Used ‘Aspirin,’” Phys.org, updated March 8, 2017, https://phys.org/print408199421.html.
  4. Colin Barras, “Neanderthals May Have Medicated with Penicillin and Painkillers,” New Scientist, March 8, 2017, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2123669-neanderthals-may-have-medicated-with-penicillin-and-painkillers/.
  5. Shrivastava Rounak et al, “Zoopharmacognosy (Animal Self Medication): A Review,” International Journal of Research in Ayurveda and Pharmacy 2 (2011): 1510–12.
  6. Johan J. Bolhuis et al., “How Could Language Have Evolved?,” PLoS Biology 12 (August 26, 2014): e1001934, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001934.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/01/24/did-neanderthals-self-medicate

Did Neanderthals Make Glue?

didneanderthalsmakeglue

BY FAZALE RANA – JANUARY 10, 2018

Fun fact: each year, people around the world purchase 50 billion dollars’ (US) worth of adhesives. But perhaps this statistic isn’t all that surprising—because almost everything we make includes some type of bonding agent.

In the context of human prehistory, anthropologists consider adhesives to have been a transformative technology. They would have provided the first humans the means to construct new types of complex devices and combine different types of materials (composites) into new technologies.

Anthropologists also consider the production and use of adhesives to be a diagnostic of advanced cognitive capabilities, such as forward planning, abstraction, and understanding of materials. Production of adhesives from natural sources, even by the earliest modern humans, appears to have been a complex operation, requiring precise temperature control and the use of earthen mounds, or ceramic or metal kilns. The first large-scale production of adhesives usually centered around the dry distillation of birch and pine barks to produce tar and pitch.

Even though modern humans perfected dry distillation methods for tar production, the archaeological record seemingly indicates that it wasn’t modern humans who first manufactured adhesives from tar, but, instead, Neanderthals. The oldest evidence for tar production and use dates to around 200,000 years ago, based on organic residues recovered from a site in Italy. It appears that Neanderthals were using the tar as glue for hafting flint spearheads to wooden spear shafts.1 Archaeologists have also unearthed spearheads with tar residue from two sites in Germany dating to 120,000 years in age and between 40,000 to 80,000 years in age, respectively.2 Because these dates precede the arrival of modern humans into Europe, anthropologists assume the tar at these sites was deliberately produced and used by Neanderthals.

For some anthropologists, this evidence indicates that Neanderthals possessed advanced cognitive ability, just like modern humans. If this is the case, then modern humans are not unique and exceptional. And, if human beings aren’t exceptional, then it becomes a challenge to defend one of the central concepts in Scripture—the idea that human beings are made in God’s image. Yet, claims that Neanderthals are cognitive equals to modern humans fail to withstand scientific scrutiny, time and time again. (See Resources section below.) This, too, is the case when it comes to Neanderthal tar production.

How Did Neanderthals Extract Tar from Birch Bark?

Though it appears that Neanderthals were able to produce and use tar as an adhesive, anthropologists have no idea how they went about this task. Archaeologists have yet to unearth any evidence for ceramics at Neanderthal sites. To address this question, a team of researchers from the University of Leiden conducted a series of experiments, trying to learn how Neanderthals could dry distill tar from birch bark using the resources most reasonably available to them.

The research team devised and evaluated three dry distillation methods:

  • The Ash Mound Method: This technique entails burying rolled up birch bark in hot ash and embers. The heat from the ash and embers distills the tar away from the birch bark, but because the bark is curled and buried, oxygen can’t easily get to the tar, preventing combustion.
  • The Pit Roll Method: This approach involves digging a cylindrical pit and then placing a burning piece of rolled-up birch bark in the pit, followed by covering it with earthen materials.
  • The Raised Structure Method: This method involves placing a vessel made out of birch bark in a pit, igniting it, and covering it with sticks, pebbles, and mud.

Of the three methods, the researchers learned that the Pit Roll technique produced the most tar and was the most efficient method. Still, the amount of tar that was produced was not enough for large-scale use, but just enough to haft one or two spears at best. The tar produced by all three methods was too fluid to be used for hafting.

Still, the research team concluded that Neanderthals could have dry distilled tar from birch bark, using methods that were simple and without the need to precisely control the distillation temperature. They also conclude that Neanderthals must have had advanced cognitive abilities—on par with modern humans—to pull off this feat.

Did Neanderthals Have Similar Cognitive Capacity to Modern Humans?

Does the ability of Neanderthals to dry distill tar (using crude methods) and use it to haft spears reflect sophisticated cognitive abilities? From my vantage point, no.

The recognition that the methods Neanderthals most likely used to dry distill tar from birch bark didn’t require temperature control and were simple and crude argues againstNeanderthal sophistication, not for it. To this point, it is worth noting that birch bark naturally curls, a factor critical to the success of the three dry distillation methods explored by the University of Leiden archaeologists. In other words, curling the birch bark was not something Neanderthals would have had to discover.

It is also worth pointing out that recent work indicates that Neanderthals did not master fire, but instead made opportunistic use of fire. These creatures could not create fire, but, instead, harvested wildfires. There were vast periods of time during Neanderthals’ tenure in Europe when wildfires were rare because of cold climatic conditions, meaning Neanderthals didn’t have access to fire. Because fire is central to the dry distillation methods, Neanderthals would have been unable to extract tar and use it for hafting for a significant portion of their time on Earth. Perhaps this explains why recovery of tar from Neanderthal sites is a rare occurrence.

Still, no matter how crude the method, dry distilling tar from birch bark seems to be pretty remarkable behavior—until we compare Neanderthal behavior to that of chimpanzees.

Comparing Neanderthal Behavior to Chimpanzee Behavior

In recent years, primatologists have observed chimpanzees in the wild engaging in some remarkable behaviors. For example, chimpanzees:

  • manufacture spears from tree branches, using a six-step process. In turn, these creatures use these spears to hunt bush babies
  • make stone tools that they use to break open nuts
  • collect branches from specific trees with appropriate mechanical characteristics and insect-repellent properties to build beds in trees
  • collect and consume plants with medicinal properties
  • understand and exploit the behavior of wildfires

In light of these remarkable chimpanzee behaviors, the manufacture and use of tar by Neanderthals doesn’t seem that impressive. No one would equate a chimpanzee’s cognitive capacity with that of a modern human. And, likewise, no one should equate the cognitive capacity of Neanderthals with modern humans. In terms of sophistication, complexity, and efficiency, the tar production methods of modern humans are categorically different from those of Neanderthals, reflecting cognitive superiority of modern humans.

Do Anthropologists Display a Bias against Modern Humans?

Recently, in a New York Times article, science writer Jon Mooallem called attention to paleoanthropologists’ prejudices when it comes to Neanderthals. He pointed out that the limited data available to these scientists from the archaeological record forces them to rely on speculation. And this speculation is inevitably influenced by their preconceptions. Mooallem states,

“All sciences operate by trying to fit new data into existing theories. And this particular science [archaeology], for which the “data” has always consisted of scant and somewhat inscrutable bits of rock and fossil, often has to lean on those metanarratives even more heavily. . . . Ultimately, a bottomless relativism can creep in: tenuous interpretations held up by webs of other interpretations, each strung from still more interpretations. Almost every archaeologist I interviewed complained that the field has become “overinterpreted”—that the ratio of physical evidence to speculation about that evidence is out of whack. Good stories can generate their own momentum.”3

Mooallem’s critique applies to paleoanthropologists who are “modern human supremacists”and those with an “anti-modern human bias” that seeks to undermine the uniqueness and exceptionalism of modern humans. And, lately, reading the scientific literature in anthropology, I get the strong sense that there is a growing anti-modern human bias among anthropologists.

In light of this anti-modern human bias, one could propose an alternate scenario for the association of tar with flint spearheads at a few Neanderthal sites that comport with the view that these creatures were cognitively inferior to modern humans. Perhaps Neanderthals threw birch or pine into a fire they harvested from a wildfire. And maybe a few pieces of bark or some pieces of branches near the edge of the fire naturally curled, leading to “dry distillation” of small amounts of tar. Seeing the tar exude from the bark, perhaps a Neanderthal poked at it with his spear, coating the piece of flint with sticky tar.

When we do our best to set aside our preconceptions, the collective body of evidence indicates that Neanderthals did not have the same cognitive capacity as modern humans.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Paul Peter Anthony Mazza et al., “A New Palaeolithic Discovery: Tar-Hafted Stone Tool in a European Mid-Pleistocene Bone-Bearing Bed,” Journal of Archaeological Science 33 (September 2006): 1310–18, doi:10.1016/j.jas.2006.01.006.
  2. Johann Koller, Ursula Baumer, and Dietrich Mania, “High-Tech in the Middle Palaeolithic: Neandertal-Manufactured Pitch Identified,” European Journal of Archaeology 4 (December 1, 2001): 385–97, doi:10.1179/eja.2001.4.3.385; Alfred F. Pawlik and Jürgen P. Thissen, “Hafted Armatures and Multi-Component Tool Design at the Micoquian Site of Inden-Altdorf, Germany,” Journal of Archaeological Science38 (July 2011): 1699–1708, doi:10.1016/j.jas.2011.03.001.
  3. P. R. B. Kozowyk et al., “Experimental Methods for the Palaeolithic Dry Distillation of Birch Bark: Implications for the Origin and Development of Neandertal Adhesive Technology,” Scientific Reports 7 (August 31, 2017): 8033, doi:10.1038/s41598-017-08106-7.
  4. Jon Mooallem, “Neanderthals Were People, Too,” New York Times Magazine, January 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/11/magazine/neanderthals-were-people-too.html.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/01/10/did-neanderthals-make-glue