New Research Douses Claim that Neanderthals Mastered Fire



A few months ago, I posted a link on Twitter to a blog article I wrote challenging the claim that Neanderthals made jewelry and, therefore, possessed the capacity for symbolism.

When I post articles about the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals, I expect them to generate a fair bit of discussion and opinions that differ from mine (and I expect this article about neanderthal’s use of fire to be no exception). But one response I received was unexpectedly jarring. It came from a Christian who accused me of being “out of touch,” “wasting time discussing frivolous issues,” and “targeting the elite with a failed apologetic.” He admonished me to spend my time on real issues related to social justice concerns and chastised me for not focusing my efforts reaching out to the “marginalized.”

As part of my reply to my new “friend,” I pointed out that the identity and capability of Neanderthals has a direct bearing on the gospel and, consequently, social injustices in our world, because it relates to the question of humanity’s origin and identity. And what we believe about where we come from really matters.

Scripture teaches that human beings are uniquely made in God’s image. And, it is the image of God that renders human beings of infinite worth and value. Because we bear God’s image, Christ died to reconcile us to the Father. And, as Christians, the immeasurable value we place on all human life motivates us to battle against the injustices of the world—because the people who suffer these injustices are image bearers. According to Scripture, when we love and serve other human beings, it equates to loving and serving God.

Yet, the biblical view of humanity has been supplanted in the scientific community by human evolution. According to this idea, human beings are not the product of a Creator’s handiwork—the crown of creation—but, like all life on Earth, we emerged through unguided, historically contingent processes. In the evolutionary paradigm, human beings hold no special status. Human beings possess no inherent worth. We possess no more value than any other creature that has ever existed throughout Earth’s history. Human beings lack any inherent worth or dignity in the evolutionary paradigm. And, within this framework, there can be no ultimate meaning or purpose to human life.

Sadly, the evolutionary view of humanity is not confined to the halls of the academy. It permeates and influences cultures throughout the world. Once human life is rendered meaningless and stripped of its inherent value, there is no fundamental justification to stand against injustice. In fact, it becomes easier to excuse acts of injustice and becomes tolerable to look the other way when these acts occur. In the evolutionary framework, no genuine motivation exists to rescue the marginalized of our world. I would go one step further and argue that many of the social ills we face throughout the world have their etiology in the evolutionary view of humanity.

I regard my work as a Christian apologist as an antidote to this toxic worldview. Towards this end, I strive to demonstrate the credibility of the biblical view of humanity—apart from biblical and theological appeals. In an increasingly secular world, we can’t simply adopt a theological stance, declaring that human beings bear God’s image, and leave it at that. Few nonbelievers will accept that approach. We must respond to the scientific challenge to the image of God with scientific evidence for human uniqueness and exceptionalism. This endeavor isn’t about challenging the elite with an obscure apologetic argument for the validity of Christianity. Ultimately, it is about establishing the foundation for the gospel and generating the impetus and justification to treat human beings as creatures with inherent worth and dignity. As Christian apologists when we “target the elite” with apologetic arguments for the Christian worldview, we are serving the marginalized in our world.

As described in Who Was Adam? a scientific case can be marshaled for human exceptionalism in a way that aligns with the biblical view of the image of God. Remarkably, a growing minority of anthropologists and primatologists now believe that human beings really are exceptional. They contend that human beings do, indeed, differ in kind, not just degree, from other creatures. The scientists who argue for this updated perspective have developed evidence for human exceptionalism within the context of the evolutionary paradigm in their attempts to understand how the human mind evolved. Yet, ironically, these new insights marshal support for the biblical conception of humanity.

However, one potential challenge to human exceptionalism relates to the cognitive capabilities of Neanderthals. Based on archeological and fossil finds some paleoanthropologists now argue that these hominids: (1) buried their dead; (2) made specialized tools; (3) used ochre; (4) produced jewelry; (5) created art; and (6) even had language capacities. These are behaviors one would naturally associate with the image bearers.

Yet, as discussed in Who Was Adam? (and articles listed in the Resource section), careful examination of the archeological and fossil evidence reveals just how speculative the claims about Neanderthal “exceptionalism” are. Recent insights on Neanderthal fire use illustrate this point.

Did Neanderthals Use Fire?

While controversy abounds among paleoanthropologists about fire use by hominins such as Homo erectus, most scientists working in this field believe Neanderthals mastered fire. This view finds its basis in the discovery of primitive hearths, burned bones, heated lithics, and charcoal at Neanderthal archeological sites. Frankly, fire use by Neanderthals bothers me. If these creatures could create and use fire—in short, if they mastered fire (called pyrotechnology)—it makes them much more like us—but uncomfortably so.

Yet, recent work raises questions about Neanderthal fire usage.1 Careful assessment of archeological sites in southern France occupied by Neanderthals from about 100,000 to 40,000 years ago indicates that Neanderthals could not create fire. Instead, they made opportunistic use of natural fire when available to them.

The French sites show clear evidence of fire use by Neanderthals. However, when researchers correlated the archeological layers harboring evidence for fire use with 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 mastery over fire.

Instead, this unusual correlation indicates that Neanderthals made opportunistic use of fire. Lightning strikes that would generate natural fires are much more likely to occur during warm periods. Instead of creating fire, Neanderthals most likely collected natural fire and cultivated it as long as they could before it extinguished.

Such evidence shows that human beings are unique and exceptional in our capacity to create and curate fire, distinguishing us from Neanderthals.

Chimpanzees Exploit Natural Fire

Still, the capacity to make opportunistic use of fire seems pretty impressive. At least until Neanderthal behavior is compared to that of chimpanzees. Recent work by Jill Pruetz indicates that these great apes understand the behavior of natural fires and even exploit them.2 Pruetz and her collaborator observed the response of the Fongoli community of chimpanzees to two wildfires in the spring of 2006. The members of the community calmly monitored the fires at close range and then changed their behavior in anticipation of the fires’ movement. To put it another way, the chimpanzees’ behavior was predictive, not responsive. This capacity is impressive, because the behavior of natural fires is complex, depending on wind speed and direction and the amount and type of fuel sources.

So, as impressive as Neanderthal behavior may seem, their opportunistic use of fire seems more closely in line with chimpanzee behavior than that of human beings, who create and control fire at will. In fact, Pruetz believes one reason chimpanzees don’t harvest natural fire relates to their lack of manual dexterity.

How Did Neanderthals Survive Cold Climates without Fire?

If Neanderthals were opportunistic exploiters of fire and it was only available to them when the climate was warm, how did they survive the cold? One possibility is that they simply migrated from cold climes to warmer ones.

Another possibility is that the hominins made clothing. At least, this is the common narrative about Neanderthals. Yet, recent work indicates that this popular depiction is incorrect. These creatures did not make clothing from animal skins, but instead made use of animal hides as capes.3

A team of paleoanthropologists reached this conclusion by studying the faunal remains at Neanderthal and modern human archeological sites and comparing them to a database of animals used to make cold weather clothing. While both modern humans and Neanderthals used deer, bison, and bear hides for body coverings, the remains of these creatures were found more frequently at modern human archeological sites. Additionally, the remains of smaller creatures, such as weasels, wolverines, and dogs were found at modern human sites but were absent from sites occupied by Neanderthals. These smaller animals have no food value. Instead, modern humans used the animal hides to trim clothing.

This data indicates that modern humans made much more frequent use of animal hides for clothing than did Neanderthals. And when modern humans made clothing, it was more elaborate and well-fitted than the coverings made by Neanderthals. This conclusion finds added support from the discovery of bone needles at modern human archeological sites (and the absence of these artifacts at Neanderthal sites), and reflects cognitive differences between human beings and Neanderthals.

Even though Neanderthals made poorly crafted body coverings and most likely made little use of fire during cold periods, they were aided in their survival of frigid conditions by the design of their bodies. Anthropologists describe Neanderthals as having a hyper-polar body design that made them well-adapted to live under frozen 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. Neanderthals most likely survived the cold because of their body design, not because of their cognitive abilities.

Even though many paleoanthropologists assert that Neanderthals possessed cognitive abilities on par with modern humans, careful evaluation finds these claims wanting, time and time again, as the latest insights about fire use by these hominins attest.

Compared to the hominins, including Neanderthals, human beings do, indeed, appear to be exceptional in a way that aligns with the image of God. These are far from “frivolous issues.” The implications are profound.

What we think about Neanderthals really matters.



  1. 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.1106759108Paul 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 Neanderthal 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.
  2. Jill D. Pruetz and Thomas C. LaDuke, “Brief Communication: Reaction to Fire by Savanna Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) at Fongoli, Senegal: Conceptualization of “Fire Behavior” and the Case for a Chimpanzee Model,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 141 (April 2010) 646–50, doi:10.1002/ajpa.21245.
  3. Mark Collard et al., “Faunal Evidence for a Difference in Clothing Use between Neanderthals and Early Modern Humans in Europe,” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 44 B (December 2016), 235–46, doi:org/10.1016/j.jaa.2016.07.010.
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Can Intelligent Design Be Part of the Construct of Science?



“If this result stands up to scrutiny, it does indeed change everything we thought we knew about the earliest human occupation of the Americas.”1

This was the response of Christopher Stringer—a highly-regarded paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London—to the recent scientific claim that Neanderthals made their way to the Americas 100,000 years before the first modern humans.2

At this point, many anthropologists have expressed skepticism about this claim, because it requires them to abandon long-held ideas about the way the Americas were populated by modern humans. As Stringer cautions, “Many of us will want to see supporting evidence of this ancient occupation from other sites before we abandon the conventional model.”3

Yet, the archaeologists making the claim have amassed an impressive cache of evidence that points to Neanderthal occupation of North America.

As Stringer points out, this work has radical implications for anthropology. But, in my view, the importance of the work extends beyond questions relating to human migrations around the world. It demonstrates that intelligent design/creation models have a legitimate place in science.

The Case for Neanderthal Occupation of North America

In the early 1990s, road construction crews working near San Diego, CA, uncovered the remains of a single mastodon. Though the site was excavated from 1992 to 1993, scientists were unable to date the remains. Both radiocarbon and luminescence dating techniques failed.

Recently, researchers turned failure into success, age-dating the site to be about 130,000 years old, using uranium-series disequilibrium methods. This result shocked them because analysis at the site indicated that the mastodon remainswere deliberately processed by hominids, most likely Neanderthals.

The researchers discovered that the mastodon bones displayed spiral fracture patterns that looked as if a creature, such as a Neanderthal, struck the bone with a rock—most likely to extract nutrient-rich marrow from the bones. The team also found rocks (called cobble) with the mastodon bones that bear markings consistent with having been used to strike bones and other rocks.

To confirm this scenario, the archaeologists took elephant and cow bones and broke them open with a hammerstone. In doing so, they produced the same type of spiral fracture patterns in the bones and the same type of markings on the hammerstone as those found at the archaeological site. The researchers also ruled out other possible explanations, such as wild animals creating the fracture patterns on the bones while scavenging the mastodon carcass.

Despite this compelling evidence, some anthropologists remain skeptical that Neanderthals—or any other hominid—modified the mastodon remains. Why? Not only does this claim fly in the face of the conventional explanation for the populating of the Americas by humans, but the sophistication of the tool kit does not match that produced by Neanderthals 130,000 years ago based on archaeological sites in Europe and Asia.

So, did Neanderthals make their way to the Americas 100,000 years before modern humans? An interesting debate will most certainly ensue in the years to come.

But, this work does make one thing clear: intelligent design/creation is a legitimate part of the construct of science.

A Common Skeptical Response to the Case for a Creator

Based on my experience, when confronted with scientific evidence for a Creator, skeptics will often summarily dismiss the argument by asserting that intelligent design/creation isn’t science and, therefore, it is not legitimate to draw the conclusion that a Creator exists from scientific advances.

Undergirding this objection is the conviction that science is the best, and perhaps the only, way to discover truth. By dismissing the evidence for God’s existence—insisting that it is nonscientific—they hope to undermine the argument, thereby sidestepping the case for a Creator.

There are several ways to respond to this objection. One way is to highlight the fact that intelligent design is part of the construct of science. This response is not motivated by a desire to “reform” science, but by a desire to move the scientific evidence into a category that forces skeptics to interact with it properly.

The Case for a Creator’s Role in the Origin of Life

It is interesting to me that the line of reasoning the archaeologists use to establish the presence of Neanderthals in North America equates to the line of reasoning I use to make the case that the origin of life reflects the product of a Creator’s handiwork, as presented in my three books: The Cell’s DesignOrigins of Life, and Creating Life in the Lab. There are three facets to this line of reasoning.

The Appearance of Design

The archaeologists argued that: (1) the arrangement of the bones and the cobble and (2) the markings on the cobble and the fracture patterns on the bones appear to result from the intentional activity of a hominid. To put it another way, the archaeological site shows the appearance of design.

In The Cell’s Design I argue that the analogies between biochemical systems and human designs evince the work of a Mind, serving to revitalize Paley’s Watchmaker argument for God’s existence. In other words, biochemical systems display the appearance of design.

Failure to Explain the Evidence through Natural Processes

The archaeologists explored and rejected alternative explanations—such as scavenging by wild animals—for the arrangement, fracture patterns, and markings of the bones and stones.

In Origins of Life, Hugh Ross (my coauthor) and I explore and demonstrate the deficiency of natural process, mechanistic explanations (such as replicator-first, metabolism-first, and membrane-first scenarios) for the origin of life and, hence, biological systems.

Reproduction of the Design Patterns

The archaeologists confirmed—by striking elephant and cow bones with a rock—that the markings on the cobble and the fracture patterns on the bone were made by a hominid. That is, through experimental work in the laboratory, they demonstrated that the design features were, indeed, produced by intelligent agency.

In Creating Life in the Lab, I describe how work in synthetic biology and prebiotic chemistry empirically demonstrate the necessary role intelligent agency plays in transforming chemicals into living cells. In other words, when scientists go into the lab and create protocells, they are demonstrating that the design of biochemical systems is intelligent design.

So, is it legitimate for skeptics to reject the scientific case for a Creator, by dismissing it as non-scientific?

Work in archaeology illustrates that intelligent design is an integral part of science, and it highlights the fact that the same scientific reasoning used to interpret the mastodon remains discovered near San Diego, likewise, undergirds the case for a Creator.



  1. Colin Barras, “First Americans May Have Been Neanderthals 130,000 Years Ago,” New Scientist, April 26, 2017,
  2. Steven R. Holen et al., “A 130,000-Year-Old Archaeological Site in Southern California, USA,” Nature 544 (April 27, 2017): 479–83, doi:10.1038/nature22065.
  3. Barras, “First Americans.”

Were Neanderthals People, Too? A Response to Jon Mooallem



Recently, I conducted an informal survey through my Facebook page, asking my friends, “What do you think is the most significant scientific challenge to the Christian faith?”

The most consistent concern related to Neanderthals. Why did God create these creatures (and other hominids)? How do we make sense of human-Neanderthal interbreeding? What about Neanderthal behavior? Didn’t these creatures behave just like us?

These questions are understandable. And they are reinforced by popular science articles such as the piece by Jon Mooallem published recently (January 11, 2017) in the New York Times Magazine. In this piece, Mooallem interviews paleoanthropologist Clive Finlayson about his research at Gorham’s Cave (Gibraltar)—work that Finlayson claims provides evidence that Neanderthals possessed advanced cognitive abilities, just like modern humans—just like us.1

Finlayson’s team discovered hatch marks made in the bedrock of Gorham’s Cave. They age-date the markings to be more than 39,000 years old. The layer immediately above the bedrock dated between 30,000 and 38,000 years old and contained Neanderthal-produced artifacts, leading the team to conclude that these hominids made the markings, and the hatch marks represent some form of proto-art.2

In his piece, Mooallem cites other recent scientific claims that support Finlayson’s interpretation of Neanderthal behavioral capacity. Based on archaeological and fossil finds, some paleoanthropologists argue that these hominids: (1) buried their dead, (2) made specialized tools, (3) used ochre, (4) produced jewelry, and (5) even had language capacities.

This view of Neanderthals stands as a direct challenge to the view espoused by the RTB human origins model, specifically the notion of human exceptionalism and the biblical view that humans alone bear the image of God.

Mooallem argues that paleoanthropologists have been slow to acknowledge the sophisticated behavior of Neanderthals because of a bias that reflects the earliest views about these creatures—a view that regards these hominids as “unintelligent brutes.” Accordingly, this view has colored the way paleoanthropologists interpret archaeological finds associated with Neanderthals, keeping them from seeing the obvious: Neanderthals had sophisticated cognitive abilities. In fact, Mooallem accuses paleoanthropologists who continue to reject this new view of Neanderthals as being “modern human supremacists,” guilty of speciesism, born out of an “anti-Neanderthal prejudice.”

Mooallem offers a reason why this prejudice continues to persist among some paleoanthropologists. In part, it’s because of the limited data available to them from the archaeological record. In the absence of a robust data set, paleoanthropologists must rely on speculation fueled by preconceptions. Mooallem states,“

All sciences operate by trying to fit new data into existing theories. And this particular science, for which the ‘data’ has always consisted of scant and somewhat inscrutable bits of rock and fossil, often has to lean on those meta-narratives 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

Yet, as discussed in my book Who Was Adam? (and articles listed below in the Resources section), careful examination of the archaeological and fossil evidence reveals just how speculative the claims about Neanderthal “exceptionalism” are. Could it be that the claims of Neanderthal art and religion result from an overinterpreted archaeological record, and not the other way around?

In effect, Mooallem’s critique of the “modern human supremacists” cuts both ways. In light of the limited and incomplete data from the archaeological record, it could be inferred that paleoanthropologists who claim Neanderthals have sophisticated cognitive capacities, just like modern humans, have their own prejudices fueled by an “anti-modern human bias” and a speciesism all their own—a bias that seeks to undermine the uniqueness and exceptionalism of modern humans. And to do this they must make Neanderthals out to be just like us.

As to the question: Why did God create these creatures (and the other hominids)? That will have to wait for another post. So stay tuned…



  1. Jon Mooallem, “Neanderthals Were People, Too,” New York Times Magazine, January 11, 2017,
  2. Joaquín Rodríguez-Vidal et al., “A Rock Engraving Made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 111 (September 2014): 13301–6, doi:10.1073/pnas.1411529111.
  3. Mooallem, “Neanderthals Were People.”
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Science News Flash: Stone Tool Use by Capuchin Monkeys Challenges Human Evolution



I love cashew nuts! Apparently, so do capuchin monkeys.

A team of scientists from Oxford University (in the UK) and the University of Sao Paulo (in Brazil) report that capuchin monkeys in the northeast forests of Brazil make sophisticated use of stone tools to extract cashew nuts from shells.1

These researchers claim that this find sheds light on the evolution of human behavior. However, I take a different view. I maintain that this discovery actually undermines the standard model for human evolution. At the same time, this work highlights human exceptionalism, which finds ready explanation in the biblical human origins account.2

Tools Engender New Scientific Possibilities

This discovery, reported in the journal Current Biology, has found its way into popular science outlets, spurring headlines such as “Scientists Unearthed a Trove of 700-Year-Old Stone Tools—Used by Monkeys.” And with good reason. It is the first archaeological evidence for the use of stone tools by nonhuman primates outside of Africa, suggesting a whole new arena of scientific investigation. Lydia Luncz, a member of the research team, stated, “We think we’re just at the beginning.”3

To get to cashew nuts, capuchins go through an elaborate process. These monkeys carefully select large flat sandstones and quartzite to use as an anvil and hammer, respectively. They transport these stones to the base of the cashew trees. There, they place the cashew nut on the flat anvil (which is about four times the size of the hammer) and carefully strike the shell with the hammer (which is about four times the size of an average stone) breaking it open so they can get to the nut inside. Once they are done with the tools, the capuchins leave them at the base of cashew trees. A walk through the forest reveals a number of cashew nut processing centers, established by these industrious creatures.

To determine how long capuchins have engaged in this behavior, the research team excavated beneath several cashew trees located in the Brazilian forest. They discovered stone tools at least 2 feet beneath the surface that date back to about 700 years old. The excavated tools had a dark organic residue on them. Analysis of the residue indicates that it is the leftover remnants of cashew nuts, confirming the use of these stones as tools. Based on the excavations, it appears that about 100 generations of capuchins have employed stone tools to extract cashews from shells. It is reasonable to think that this behavior extends even further back in time.

This discovery follows on the heels of earlier work by the same team. In a previous study, these scientists observed Burmese long-tailed macaques in Thailand using stone tools to crack open shellfish, crabs, and nuts. Excavations at macaque sites on the island of Piak Nam Yai have identified stone tools that are about 65 years in age, going back two generations.

The use of stone tools among nonhuman primates is not limited to capuchins and macaques. Researchers have also uncovered evidence for chimpanzee stone tool use in Africa that dates back to over 4,000 years ago.

It seems as if hominids aren’t the only primates to leave behind an archaeological record.

Tools Throw Evolution into Question

The use of stone tools by capuchins, macaques, and chimpanzees has important implications for the creation-evolution debate. The tools used by these nonhuman primates is reminiscent of tools used by hominids. The similar behavior of hominids, Great Apes, and Old and New World monkeys renders the activities of hominids much less remarkable. I wrote elsewhere about the implications of tool use by chimpanzees (see here). The point I raised applies to the use of stone tools by capuchins and macaques:

“Chimpanzee behavior is closer to what we infer about hominid behavior from the fossil record, particularly Homo habilis and Homo erectus. These creatures, too, made tools and engaged in hunting and scavenging activity. The temptation is to see hominid behavior as transitional, representing a path to modern human behavior. Yet the newly recognized behavior of chimpanzees distances the hominids from modern humans. Just because the habilines and erectines made tools and engaged in other remarkable behaviors doesn’t mean that they were ‘becoming human.’ Instead, their behavior appears to be increasingly animal-like, particularly when compared to chimp activities.”4

And, I would add, hominid behavior becomes even more animal-like when compared to the behavior of capuchins and macaques.

Who Was Adam? (book)
Chimpanzee’s Behavior Supports RTB’s Model for Humanity’s Origin” (article)
Chimpanzees’ Sleeping Habits Closer to Hominid Behavior Than to Humans’” (article)

  1. Michael Haslam et al., “Pre-Columbian Monkey Tools,” Current Biology 26 (July 2016): pR521–R522, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.05.046.
  2. RTB’s biblical creation model for human origins views the hominids as creatures, created by God’s divine fiat, possessing intelligence and emotional capacity. These animals were able to employ crude tools and even adopt some level of “culture,” much like baboons, gorillas, and chimpanzees. But they were not spiritual beings made in God’s image. That position—and all of the intellectual, relational, and symbolic capabilities that come with it—remains reserved for modern humans alone.
  3. Darryl Fears, “Scientists Unearthed a Trove of 700-Year-Old Stone Tools—Used by Monkeys,” The Washington Post, July 11, 2016,
  4. Fazale Rana, “Chimpanzees’ Sleeping Habits Closer to Hominid Behavior Than to Humans,’” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), Reasons to Believe, June 9, 2014,
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