Robert Ripley, the originator of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise, traveled the world in search of all manner of oddities; yet he once quipped, “I have traveled in 201 countries and the strangest thing I saw was man.”
Human beings can be odd, but are we unique? Since Darwin’s time, most biologists have maintained that humans and animals differ in degree, but not kind. Darwin wrote, “In a series of forms graduating insensibly from some ape-like creature to man as he now exists, it would be impossible to fix on any definite point when the term ‘man’ ought to be used.”1
Of course, this evolutionary view undermines the biblical concept of humanity being uniquely made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27). However, discoveries highlighting human uniqueness have begun to erode the scientific support for the standard evolutionary claims. Three such discoveries were made recently.
1. Human Language Was Complex at Inception
Evolutionary biologists have long contended that human language emerged gradually and that the hominids (such as Homo erectus and Neanderthals) possessed the physical and mental antecedents to modern humanity’s complex language characteristics. Some anthropologists and linguists have challenged this scenario. They argue that language is uniquely associated with modern humans and originated rapidly as a singular event.
In a recent perspectives article, linguists from the University of São Paulo (in Brazil) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology added support to this new scenario by arguing that language was intrinsically complex, rather than simplistic, from the get-go.2In other words, there was no proto-language that evolved into complex language capabilities. One author commented, “The hierarchical complexity found in present-day language is likely to have been present in human language since its emergence.”3
The rapid emergence of complex language poses a problem for the theory of evolution, but it fits nicely with a biblical understanding of humanity’s origin. If human beings were uniquely made in God’s image through the Creator’s direct action, then it would be reasonable to think that complex language would appear suddenly and be uniquely associated with modern humans.
2. Neanderthals Did Not Make Musical Instruments
Many anthropologists consider symbolism—the ability to express ideas symbolically through language and artistic and musical expression—a defining feature of modern humans. A number of Christian scholars (myself included) consider symbolism a reflection of the image of God in people. But if Neanderthals (or other hominids) possessed the same capacity, then the idea of human uniqueness—and the scientific credibility the Bible’s view of humanity—would face serious questions. A number of anthropologists claim that Neanderthals expressed symbolism, however limited, through language, making art, and body ornamentation. Yet each claim fails to withstand careful scrutiny.4
Based on the discovery of “flutes” made out of cave bear leg bones, some anthropologists believe Neanderthals crafted musical instruments. One of the most well-known examples was recovered in 1995 from a Slovenian cave. This artifact dated to 43,000 years in age; thus anthropologists maintained that modern humans could not have manufactured this flute and, therefore, attributed it to Neanderthals. However, other studies have indicated that Neanderthals might have been extinct by 43,000 years ago and also that modern humans entered Europe around 43,500 years ago, earlier than previously thought.5 It is important to note that all the other recovered bone flutes date closer to 25,000 years ago and are clearly associated with modern human archeological sites.6
On this basis alone, it appears we can’t attribute the bone flutes to Neanderthal artisans, but recent research provided unequivocal evidence that these bone flutes aren’t even musical instruments. Careful analysis of the perforations in the leg bones indicated that the gnawing of spotted hyenas, not humans or hominids using tools, generated them.7
3. Neanderthals Did Not Master Fire
There is good evidence that Neanderthals controlled and used fire.8 However, the latest research indicates that they didn’t master fire, but only used it opportunistically and sporadically. Researchers from Boston University and the University of Sheffield (in England) presented results supporting this conclusion at the 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.9
As a case in point, Neanderthals occupied two sites in southwest France (Roc de Marsal and Pech de l’Azé IV) for tens of thousands of years. Thousands of stone tools and animal remains have been recovered from these locales, yet there is limited evidence for fire use at these sites. In contrast, modern human sites are replete with evidence for consistent, continual fire use.
Failure to use fire consistently might explain Neanderthal extinction. Fire provides warmth, kills bacteria in food, and alters the chemical structure of meat to make calories and nutrients more accessible. If modern humans made consistent use of fire, but Neanderthals didn’t, then modern humans would have outcompeted these hominids.
Regardless of whether or not this scenario explains Neanderthal extinction, it does highlight significant cognitive differences that line up with the notion that modern humans possessed God’s image and Neanderthals didn’t. As all three studies attest, it’s becoming less and less difficult to believe that human beings are as unique as the Bible teaches.
- Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2nd ed., Great Minds Series (1874; repr., Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), 188.
- Vitor A. Nóbrega and Shigeru Miyagawa, “The Precedence of Syntax in the Rapid Emergence of Human Language in Evolution as Defined by the Integration Hypothesis,” Frontiers in Psychology 6 (March 2015): 271.
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “The Rapid Rise of Human Language,” ScienceDaily, posted March 31, 2015, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150331131324.htm.
- For example see: “Speaking about a Controversy, Part 2 of 2”; “Neanderthals Wore Eagle Talons as Jewelry 130,000 Years Ago”; and “Did Neanderthals Make Art?”
- Philip R. Nigst et al., “Early Modern Human Settlement of Europe North of the Alps Occurred 43,500 Years Ago in a Cold Steppe-Type Environment,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 111 (October 2014): 14394–99.
- Cajus G. Diedrich, “‘Neanderthal Bone Flutes’: Simply Products of Ice Age Spotted Hyena Scavenging Activities on Cave Bear Cubs in European Cave Bear Dens,” Royal Society Open Science 2 (April 2015): 140022.
- For a discussion of what fire use among the hominids means for the RTB human origins model, listen to the December 17, 2014 episode of Ex Libris (podcast).
- Tia Ghose, “Did Neanderthals Die Off Because They Couldn’t Harness Fire?” Live Science, posted April 20, 2015, https://www.livescience.com/50532-neanderthals-died-no-fire.html.