Did Neanderthals Make Glue?



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.



  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.
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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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Original article at:

Brain Synchronization Study Evinces the Image of God

brainsynchronization study


As I sit down at my computer to compose this post, the new Justice League movie has just hit the theaters. Even though it has received mixed reviews, I can’t wait to see this latest superhero flick. With several superheroes fighting side-by-side, it begs the question: “Who is the most powerful superhero in the DC universe?”

I’m not sure how you would respond, but in my opinion, it’s not Superman or Wonder Woman. Instead, it’s a superhero that didn’t appear in the Justice League movie (but he is a longtime member of the Justice League in the comic books): the Martian Manhunter.

Originally from Mars, J’onn J’onzz possesses superhuman strength and endurance, just like Superman. He can fly and shoot energy beams out of his eyes. But, he also has shapeshifting abilities and is a powerful telepath. It would be fun to see Superman and the Martian Manhunter tangle. My money would be on J’onn J’onzz because of his powerful telepathic abilities. As a telepath, he can read minds, control people’s thoughts and memories, create realistic illusions, and link minds together.


Image credit: Fazale Rana

Even though it is fun (and somewhat silly) to daydream about superhuman strength and telepathic abilities, recent work by Spanish neuroscientists from the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain, and Language indicates that mere mortals do indeed have an unusual ability that seems a bit like telepathy. When we engage in conversations with one another—even with strangers—the electrical activities of our brains synchronize.1 In part, this newfound ability may provide the neurological basis for the theory of mind and our capacity to form complex, hierarchical social relationships, properties uniquely displayed by human beings. In other words, this discovery provides more reasons to think that human beings are exceptional in a way that aligns with the biblical concept of the image of God.

Brain Synchronization

Most brain activity studies focus on individual subjects and their responses to single stimuli. For example, single-person studies have shown that oscillations in electrical activity in the brain couple with speech rhythms when the test subject is either listening or speaking. The Spanish neuroscientists wanted to go one step further. They wanted to learn what happens to brain activities when two people engage one another in a conversation.

To find out, they assembled 15 dyads (14 men and 16 women) consisting of strangers who were 20–30 years in age. They asked the members of each dyad to exchange opinions on sports, movies, music, and travel. While the strangers conversed, the researchers monitored electrical activities in the brains using EEG technology. As expected, they detected coupling of brain electrical activities with the speech rhythms in both speakers and listeners. But, to their surprise, they also detected pure brain entrainment in the electrical activities of the test subject, independent of the physical properties of the sound waves associated with speaking and listening. To put it another way, the brain activities of the two people in the conversation became synchronized, establishing a deep connection between their minds.

Brain Synchronization and the Image of God

The notion that human beings differ in degree, not kind, from other creatures has been a mainstay concept in anthropology and primatology for over 150 years. And it has been the primary reason why so many people have abandoned the belief that human beings bear God’s image. Yet, this stalwart view in anthropology is losing its mooring, with the concept of human exceptionalism taking its place. 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 merely degree, from other creatures, including Neanderthals. Ironically, the scientists who argue for this updated perspective have developed evidence for human exceptionalism in their attempts to understand how the human mind evolved. But, instead of buttressing human evolution, these new insights marshal support for the biblical conception of humanity.

Anthropologists identify at least four interrelated qualities that make us exceptional: (1) symbolism, (2) open-ended generative capacity, (3) theory of mind, and (4) our capacity to form complex social networks.

As human beings, we effortlessly represent the world with discrete symbols. We denote abstract concepts with symbols. And our ability to represent the world symbolically has interesting consequences when coupled with our abilities to combine and recombine those symbols in a countless number of ways to create alternate possibilities. Our capacity for symbolism manifests in the form of language, art, music, and even body ornamentation. And we desire to communicate the scenarios we construct in our minds with other human beings.

But there is more to our interactions with other human beings than a desire to communicate. We want to link our minds together. And we can do this because we possess a theory of mind. In other words, we recognize that other people have minds just like ours, allowing us to understand what others are thinking and feeling. We also have the brain capacity to organize people we meet and know into hierarchical categories, allowing us to form and engage in complex social networks.

In effect, these qualities could be viewed as scientific descriptors of the image of God.

It is noteworthy that all four of these qualities are on full display in the Spanish neuroscientists’ study. The capacity to offer opinions on a wide range of topics and to communicate our ideas with language reflects our symbolism and our open-ended generative capacity. I find it intriguing that the oscillations of our brain’s electrical activity couples with the rhythmic patterns created by speech—suggesting our brains are hard-wired to support our desire to communicate with one another symbolically. I also find it intriguing that our brains become coupled at an even deeper level when we converse, consistent with our theory of mind and our capacity to enter into complex social relationships.

Even though many people in the scientific community promote a view of humanity that denigrates the image of God, common-day experience continually supports the notion that we are unique and exceptional as human beings. But, for me, I find it even more gratifying to learn that scientific investigations into our cognitive and behavioral capacities continue to affirm human exceptionalism and, with it, the image of God. Indeed, we are the crown of creation.

Resources to Dig Deeper


  1. Alejandro Pérez et al., “Brain-to-Brain Entrainment: EEG Interbrain Synchronization While Speaking and Listening,” Scientific Reports 7 (June 23, 2017): 4190, doi:10.1038/s41598-017-04464-4.
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Latest Insights into Obesity Fatten the Case for Human Design



As a biochemist, I have come up with a radical new diet plan: Eat less and exercise more. Yet, recent work by a research team led by Herman Pontzer at Hunter College exposed the flaws in my newfangled diet before I could even try it out. As it so happens, an emerging body of data indicates that exercise contributes very little to weight loss.

This surprising, counterintuitive finding has important implications for medical practitioners trying to combat a worldwide obesity epidemic. It also highlights the elegant design of the human body and supports the growing case for human exceptionalism.

The Obesity Epidemic

Some of the latest statistics indicate that worldwide, 1 in 3 people are overweight and 1 in 10 suffer from obesity. This problem has serious consequences because obesity plays a part in the etiology of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain forms of cancer.

Of course, the cause of obesity is straightforward: People consume more calories than they need. One common-sense solution is to have people exercise more. Presumably the obesity epidemic is linked to a sedentary lifestyle. Throughout most of human history, our forebearers lived physically demanding lives. In contrast, people today engage in limited physical activity. Presumably, this inactivity lowers daily energy expenditure, leading to excessive weight gain, as caloric intake exceeds caloric outtake. Ready access to energy-dense foods only serves to exacerbate this caloric imbalance.

But as it turns out, exercise appears to have little to no bearing on weight loss, defying conventional wisdom. While exercise has many health benefits, weight loss doesn’t appear to be one of them. Why? Because, based on the latest research, increasing our physical activity doesn’t lead to a greater caloric expenditure. As a corollary, the only way to lose weight is to restrict caloric intake.

Constrained Energy Expenditure

Over the course of the last few years, researchers at Hunter College have sought to understand what, if any, aspect of the Western lifestyle contributes to obesity. In the process, they have learned that the sedentary lifestyle in the West is not the problem. They discovered that when people transition from an inactive lifestyle to one characterized by moderate activity, a small increase in energy expenditure occurs. But, beyond that point, energy expenditure plateaus. Additional activity doesn’t translate into increased energy expenditure; instead total energy outlay appears to be constrained.

For example, in 2012 the research team from Hunter College published the results of a study in which they examined the energy expenditure of the Hadza people, indigenous hunter-gatherers who live in the woodland and savanna of northern Tanzania. Anthropologists think that their way of living closely resembles the lifestyle of the first modern humans. As expected, the investigators determined that the Hadza are much more active than people who live Western lifestyles. Despite that difference, the average daily energy expenditure of the Hadza was no different than people from the Western world (once corrected for age, body size, and body composition).1

In a broader study, the Hunter College scientists found the same trend when examining average daily energy expenditure for a sample of 332 people from Africa and North America. The sample included 25- to 45-year-old men and women representing people with a variety of lifestyles. After correcting for age, body size, and composition, average daily energy expenditure appeared to be constant, regardless of the amount of daily activity.2

The Hunter College researchers speculate that as physical activity increases, our bodies conserve calories by reducing (1) our basal metabolic rate, (2) our repair processes, and (3) our growth rate. Additionally, women also conserve energy by reducing estrogen production and (for women who are nursing) decreasing lactation. The researchers also speculate that men and women may reduce energy expenditure by altering our posturing behaviors.

Constrained Energy Expenditure and the Case for Human Design

In many ways, constrained energy expenditure functions as an ingenious design to ensure human survival. For most of human history, our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers—a highly active, physically demanding way of life. Yet when hunting and foraging for food, day-to-day success is not guaranteed. Humans could never have endured as a species if our daily energy expenditures didn’t plateau. When caloric intake is low (because of food scarcity), reducing activity level is not an option for hunter-gatherers because reduced activity makes it even less likely that they will find enough food to provide the minimal daily caloric intake. When food is scarce, the only way to endure is to double down foraging efforts. But increased foraging wouldn’t be possible if caloric expenditures increased linearly with activity. Constraining caloric output by slowing down basal metabolic rates and other processes allows hunter-gatherers to maintain high activity levels even when food isn’t plentiful.

As a creationist, I see constrained energy expenditure as an ingenious biological design befitting a Creator who made human beings to be fearfully and wonderfully made.

Constrained Energy Expenditure and the Case for Human Exceptionalism

When it comes to constraining daily energy expenditure, humans aren’t unique. It appears as if all primates limit their daily energy outlay. For example, the daily energy expenditures of primates in the wild is no different than the caloric output of primates living out their lives in a zoo or in a laboratory setting.

But what does make us unique is the magnitude of our daily energy expenditure. Humans require about 600 more calories per day than chimpanzees and nearly 1,000 more calories than orangutans.3 The primary reason for this difference is our large brain size. Maintenance of our large brains requires an energy outlay not demanded of other primates. Compared to other primates, we have accelerated metabolic processes.

But our large brain size (and our advanced cognitive abilities, capacities for symbolism, and theory of mind that go along with it) allow us to thrive in the face of this additional energy demand. The first anatomically modern humans were adept at shaping their diets to consist of calorie-rich foods. Cooking their food also allowed them to extract more calories and other nutrients from the food they collected. They also shared food with one another. These practices reflect our unique nature as human beings and arise from our symbolism and capacity for theory of mind—properties that reflect the image of God.

The unexpected insight into the relationship between physical activity and energy expenditure points to insights about human beings that are initially unexpected for those of us who view humans as the product of God’s handiwork. Constrained energy expenditure doesn’t make much sense if we think about it in the context of a Western lifestyle. But when we consider it in light of the way human beings have lived for much of human history, it makes perfect sense. And the difference in our average energy expenditure compared to other primates highlights our unique and exceptional nature, adding to the weight (pun intended) of evidence for human exceptionalism.

Returning to my diet plan: I guess it doesn’t take a biochemist to know what do to lose weight—just eat less.



  1. Herman Pontzer et al., “Hunter-Gatherer Energetics and Human Obesity,” PLoS ONE 7 (July 2012): id. e40503, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040503.
  2. Herman Pontzer et al., “Constrained Total Energy Expenditure and Metabolic Adaptation to Physical Activity in Adult Humans,” Current Biology 26 (February 2016): 410–17, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.12.046.
  3. Herman Pontzer et al., “Metabolic Acceleration and the Evolution of Human Brain Size and Life History,” Nature 533 (May 2016): 390–92, doi:10.1038/nature17654.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:

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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Original article at: