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, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/11/magazine/neanderthals-were-people-too.html.
  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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Piltdown Man: The Fact and Fantasy of the Hominid Fossil Record



In high school and college, I played my fair share of practical jokes. While a few of the victims of my hoaxes appreciated my sense of humor, most were “not amused.” (To quote my high school English teacher Mrs. Hodges who, in turn, was quoting Queen Victoria: “Mr. Rana, we are not amused.”)

Hoaxes aren’t just frowned upon in high school. They are really frowned upon in science. They undermine the integrity of the scientific process. And because of the damage they can cause, scientific hoaxes have been known to end careers.

Perhaps one of the most significant scientific hoaxes ever took place around the turn of the last century, when Piltdown man fossils were discovered. These fossils—which turned out to be forgeries—were touted as the missing link in human evolution and misdirected paleoanthropology for nearly 40 years. Though many suspects have been identified, nobody knew who perpetrated this hoax—until now, thanks to the efforts of a multidisciplinary research team from the UK.1

Piltdown Man

In 1912, Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward reported on fossils recovered from ancient graves near Sussex, England. Pieces of a human-like cranium, a partial ape-like jaw, and a few worn-down molars were interpreted to come from an individual hominid (deemed Eoanthropus dawsoni). The fragments displayed the very features that evolutionary biologists expected to see in the missing link.

Dawson and Woodward reported that their specimen was associated with other ancient mammal fossils, so they dated their find at about 500,000 years old.

Piltdown man’s status as humanity’s ancestor gained further credence with Dawson’s 1915 report of a second specimen recovered near Sheffield Park (dubbed Piltdown man II).

Exposing the Fraud

However, after Raymond Dart discovered Australopithecus in 1924, some scientists began to think Dart’s newly recognized hominid—not Piltdown man—was the one that led to modern humans. Scientists further questioned Piltdown man’s importance as a transitional form in the 1930s when paleoanthropologists discovered and confirmed Pithecanthropus erectus and Sinanthropus pekinensis as ancient hominids. For some paleoanthropologists, Piltdown man was relegated to a mere evolutionary side branch. But still, Piltdown man cast a shadow over paleoanthropology, causing some scientists to question the significance of Dart’s finds and the hominids unearthed in China.

The legendary Piltdown man forgery went unrecognized for nearly 40 years until a team of scientists exposed it as a fraud in 1953. Better dating of the site of Piltdown man’s discovery and careful chemical and morphological analysis of the fossil specimens ultimately exposed what Alexander Kohn (one-time editor of the Journal of Irreproducible Results) called “the most elaborate scientific hoax ever perpetuated.”2 The fossils were actually carefully doctored modern remains stained with a dye to make them appear old. The cranium pieces were human. The jaw bone fragment came from an orangutan. The teeth were carefully filed to fit the mandible and make them appear more human-like.

So who is responsible for the Piltdown man forgery? Science historians have debated the perpetrator’s identity and the motivation behind his or her actions. Thanks to the work of the multidisciplinary team, we are closer to knowing who the perpetrator was. These scientists applied state-of-the-art analytical techniques to the Piltdown man fossils to gain better insight into the nature of the forgery. Using DNA analysis, they determined that the orangutan jaw bone and molars from Piltdown man and Piltdown man II specimens came from the same creature that lived in Borneo.

Three-dimensional x-ray imaging indicated that the skull bones and teeth were all doctored in the same way. The same dental putty was used to fill bones and affix teeth to the mandible for Piltdown man I and II specimens. These results all point to the work of a single forger.

Given the circumstances surrounding Piltdown man’s “discovery,” the evidence strongly points to Charles Dawson as the culprit. As the authors of the study point out:

“Over the years, at least 20 others have been accused of being the perpetrator, but in many cases, the allegation also includes Dawson as co-conspirator. This is largely because the story originated with him, he brought the first specimens to Dr. Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the British Museum (Natural History) in 1912, nothing was ever found at the site when Dawson was not there, he is the only known person directly associated with the supposed finds at the second Piltdown site, the exact whereabouts of which he never revealed, and no further significant fossils, mammal or human, were discovered in the localities after his death in 1916.”3

As impressive as this work is: Why spend so much effort to study fossil forgery? The rationale is two-fold. First, this study demonstrates the value of emerging techniques to shed light on age-old questions in paleoanthropology. Second, this project focuses renewed attention on the Piltdown man forgery—100 years after Dawson’s death—serving as a reminder of how powerful biases can influence interpretations of the fossil record.

Science historians have long discussed why the scientific community so readily accepted Piltdown man as authentic, and why it took so long to recognize the discovery as a forgery, since (at least in retrospect) many indicators along this line were quite evident.

These complex questions have complex answers. In part, the ready acceptance of Piltdown man stemmed from the eagerness to find the “missing link” to support Darwin’s model for human evolution with evidence from the fossil record. Piltdown man exactly fit the scientific community’s preconceived ideas as to what the transitional intermediate between humans and apes must look like. According to Kohn:

“Scientists, contrary to lay belief, do not work by collecting only ‘hard’ facts and fitting together information based on them. Scientific investigation is also motivated by pursuit of recognition and fame, by hope and by prejudice. Dubious evidence is strengthened by strong hope: anomalies are fitted into a coherent picture with the help of cultural bias.”4

To put it another way: Scientists are human, and from time to time their fallibility or bias can influence the scientific process. The scientists who took part in this study agree. Based on their investigation into the Piltdown man forgery, they acknowledge that:

“It has opened our eyes to the scientific rigour required to avoid being deceived in the same manner as so many scientists were between 1912 and 1917. As scientists, we must not be led by preconceived ideas in the evaluation of new discoveries.”5

I fully agree with the authors, but as a skeptic of the evolutionary paradigm I have to ask: Has a different type of bias colored the interpretation of hominid fossil record? Many biologists claim that human evolution is a fact. In light of this commitment, anthropologists interpret the hominid fossil record from a preconceived evolutionary perspective, in spite of the scientific challenges to human evolution that arise from the hominid finds. In my experience, few, if any, anthropologists are open to the possibility that evolutionary mechanisms alone may be insufficient to account for humanity’s origins, regardless of the evidence at hand.

And, in my view, this bias has misdirected attempts to understand humanity’s origins for the last 150 years.

Q&A: Are There Transitional Intermediates in the Fossil Record?” by Fazale Rana (Article)
The Amazing Disappearing Hominid!” by Fazale Rana (Article)
A Key Transitional Form in Human Evolution May Not Have Existed” by Fazale Rana (Article)
The Unreliability of Hominid Phylogenetic Analysis Challenges the Human Evolutionary Paradigm” by Fazale Rana (Article)
Who Was Adam? by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross (Book)

  1. Isabelle De Groote et al., “New Genetic and Morphological Evidence Suggests a Single Hoaxer Created ‘Piltdown Man,’” Royal Society Open Science 3 (August 2016): 160328, doi:10.1098/rsos.160328.
  2. Alexander Kohn, False Prophets: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine, rev. ed. (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 133.
  3. De Groote, “New Genetic and Morphological Evidence.”
  4. Kohn, False Prophets, 140.
  5. De Groote, “New Genetic and Morphological Evidence.”
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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, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/animalia/wp/2016/07/11/in-brazil-scientists-unearth-a-trove-of-ancient-stone-tools-used-by-monkeys/.
  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, https://www.reasons.org/articles/chimpanzees-sleeping-habits-closer-to-hominid-behavior-than-to-humans.
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