Neanderthals were just really old people: disproven

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.

Bits of the skull that separate humans (right) from Neanderthals (left).

Bits of the skull that separate humans (right) from Neanderthals (left). Problems with the “Neanderthals as old people” hypothesis are immediately apparent as not all of these change as humans get older

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*):

Le Moustier 1. Note the browridge, lack of chin and long skull; all classic Neanderthal traits

Le Moustier 1. Note the browridge, lack of chin and long skull; all classic Neanderthal traits

Dederiyeh 1; a Neanderthal toddler who may have been intentionally buried

Dederiyeh 1; a Neanderthal toddler who may have been intentionally buried

Le Moustier 2, the Neanderthal foetus/4 month old

Le Moustier 2, 

These skeletons prove that there were Neanderthals of all ages, definitively dispelling the notion that they were simply really old people.

9 thoughts on “Neanderthals were just really old people: disproven

  1. I can’t find it in my files (or online), but I used to have a quote that began, “Creationism is wrong, just plain wrong…” The thing about it that has always struck me is the direct contradictions required. For example, the speed of light is well-tested in myriad circumstances with no exceptions to the rule, so how can stars be more than 6 (or 10) thousand light years away? Radioactive decay is another fact we’ve studied and which consistently, without fail, follows rules we’ve discovered, yet creationism demands that carbon dating must be a false. Geology must be a lie; the fossil record must be a lie…

    That science clearly works is demonstrated daily by our cellphones and other tools, so creationists necessarily believe in a lying, trickster god who created a universe and the science that describes it, but apparently set it up to fool us. Even if such a lying god did exist, I’d want nothing to do with him.

  2. I don’t understand the argument. Neanderthal could have gotten much older than modern humans, and still have juvenile and adolescent skeletons. The idea that modern humans turned into Neanderthals with age is not even worth debating as it is silly, but I don’t think the age of Neanderthal is settled yet.

    • The idea is that humans turned into Neanderthals with age is not worth spending a huge amount of effort on, which is why I wrote this. Hopefully it’ll put the issue to bed, or at least make it easier for people to deal with. Next time this comment is made I won’t have to rewrite a reply; just link back here!

      As for the age of Neanderthals, their skeletons show they had a similar growth patter to humans; so likely lived about as long as we would in similar circumstances

  3. I have come up against this before too, when I was at uni the only references I remember to the argument related to when the skeletons were first discovered – that proposition was thrown out pretty quickly (if it ever caught on)

    I think we both know that no matter how many people disprove it and how often it is disproven, creationists will never accept that Neanderthal are not human

    • Some of the earliest thoughts about Neanderthals were that they were humans who were old/injured. One even reckoned they were soldiers and they’re brow ridge was the result of frowning in pain a lot.

      I find it amusing that some creationists will still cite these sources in some sort of bizarre argument from antiquity. I say bizarre because they simply aren’t that good arguments. Brow furrowing does not make brow ridges, after all

  4. Thanks for writing this! I can’t stand that absurd “theory”! For the history of Neanderthals & Neanderthaloid hybrids up to the present day, check out my facebook group “Neander Files”.

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