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New Research Douses Claim that Neanderthals Mastered Fire

By Fazale Rana - January 3, 2018

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.1106759108; Paul 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.

  • Human Origins
  • Hominids
  • Neanderthals/Hominids
  • Anthropology
  • Fire
  • Clothing
  • Chimpanzees
  • Blogs

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