Whenever I write a post about Neanderthals I typically get three kinds of comments. There are the people who ask “just how smart were the Neanderthals?” After all, their brain was as big – if not bigger – than ours. Then there are the people who ponder “why did they go extinct?”; given how similar we are to them. And finally there is invariably the young earth creationist; who posits that Neanderthals are actually just really old humans. This isn’t just a objection from random internet people either. The large creationist ministries, such as Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research have made a similar argument; along with countless smaller blogs. But does this idea hold any water?
The gist of the claim is that there are various parts of the human body which continue to grow throughout our lives, including your nose and ears. Around the supposed time of Noah’s supposed flood, people were supposedly living for centuries. Noah himself was supposed to have lived for over 500 years. Thus these bits would keep growing and growing until they looked quite different from us and their skeletons have been mislabelled as a distinct species of human: the Neanderthals. There’s also an offshoot of this argument that claims many other aspects of Neanderthal anatomy could be explained by pathology associated with age, like arthritis. As such they are not a distinct species documenting diversity and evolution in the human lineage, but just really old (and possibly ill) individuals from Biblical times.
But how to prove this, one way or the other? In science the key is to come up with predictions and test them against data. When you have two competing ideas, you’d preferably find a prediction where the two hypotheses have different expectations. For example, if someone turned up and said “vaccines are great at preventing diseases but cause autism” and someone else said “they’re great at preventing diseases but don’t cause autism” the key thing to investigate would be the association between vaccination and autism (and when such studies are done, no link is found); not vaccination and disease .
So where does the evolutionary model and the creationist idea differ here? In this case it would be the expected age of the individuals. If Neanderthals were just extremely old people then we should only find adult skeletons, whilst palaeoanthropologists would expect to find Neanderthals of all ages. So the question is: have we found any young Neanderthals? Yes! There are almost a dozen of Neanderthal teenagers, children, babies and even a potential foetus; all possessing the unique characteristics that define Neanderthals. This demonstrates once and for all that they are not just old humans.
Listing them all would take a while and no doubt bore than socks off all of you; so here is a list of three of the (in my opinion) most interesting Neanderthal younglings (a more complete list can be found *here*):
- . A Neanderthal teenager who was around 15 – 19 years old when he died. From present day France, this teenager comes complete with the brow ridges, occipital bun, skull with a low, long profile and many of the other defining characteristics of Neanderthals.This is the only fossil on my list that has been discussed by creationists. It’s had a long and traumatic life, being lost/sold on many occasions and suffering damage during the second world war. As such some of the initial reconstructions after that were inaccurate, which was (as far as I can tell accurately) criticised by creationists. However, even when these issues are rectified the classic Neanderthal traits are still there.
- . A 3/4 year old Neanderthal child from Syria. This skeleton is notable for perhaps being deliberately buried by the Neanderthals, hinting that they may have had some religious beliefs of their own. For this post though, it’s important because the skull contains many of the defining Neanderthal traits, including its low, long profile.
- . A 4 month old Neanderthal, or possible foetus (at that age it’s hard to tell the difference). Being so small it’s suffered quite extensive damage and breakage, but nonetheless many Neanderthal traits have been preserved in it’s skull and teeth. This example is also quite notable for still containing bits of the skeleton other than the skull; which also show Neanderthal characteristics. As a paper on the skeleton notes “The morphology of Le Moustier 2 differs greatly from that of living human neonates, but shows many similarities with the features of juvenile and adult Neanderthals“
These skeletons prove that there were Neanderthals of all ages, definitively dispelling the notion that they were simply really old people.