Paleoanthropologists Mixed Up about Neanderthal Behavior

Paleoanthropologists Mixed Up about Neanderthal Behavior

It’s easy to get confused—especially when working on something complicated. Not many things are more convoluted than trying to figure out the behavior of Neanderthals from the fossil and archeological records. As it turns out, paleoanthropologists seem to have been mixed up about Neanderthal behavior for some time.

Thanks to new work, this confusion is being sorted out.1 It’s a good thing, because improved understanding also carries implications for both evolutionary and biblical explanations of humanity’s origin.

Neanderthals lived primarily in Europe, western Asia, and the Middle East; they appeared about 250,000 years ago and became extinct around 30,000 years ago. The archeological record indicates that Neanderthals behaved in a relatively unsophisticated manner compared to modern humans. However, some paleoanthropologists have argued that around 40,000 years ago—the time of modern humans’ arrival in Europe and right before Neanderthals’ disappearance—these hominids evolved the capacity for modern behavior and with it, symbolic thought.2

Archeological finds in the French cave Grotte du Renne provide the chief evidence for this claim. Neanderthals and modern humans occupied this cave at various times between 45,000 and 28,000 years ago. This site consists of fifteen archeological layers. Of greatest interest to paleoanthropologists is a layer containing Neanderthal teeth and artifacts such as personal ornaments, rings, pierced animal teeth, and ivory pendants—remains viewed as evidence for symbolic thought and typically connected to modern humans.

If Neanderthals did indeed possess the capacity for symbolic thought, this feature would undermine the RTB human origins model. (See the sidebar: “Who Were Neanderthals? The RTB Human Origins Model.” In Who Was Adam? Hugh Ross and I proposed a number of possible explanations for the finds of Grotte du Renne.

Who Were Neanderthals?
The RTB Human Origins Model

RTB’s biblical creation model views the Neanderthals and other hominids as animals created by God’s direct intervention. Clearly the hominids were remarkable creatures that walked erect and possessed limited intelligence and emotional capacity. This ability allowed these animals to employ crude tools and even adopt some level of “culture,” much like baboons, gorillas, and chimpanzees. Though created by God’s divine fiat, the hominids were not spiritual beings, made in His image. The RTB model reserves this status for modern humans exclusively.

The RTB model predicts that anatomical, physiological, biochemical, and genetic similarities will exist among the hominids and modern humans to varying degrees. But, since the hominids did not bear God’s image, they are expected to be distinct from humans, particularly in their cognitive capacity, behavior, “technology,” and “culture.”

In summary, the RTB model predicts that the hominids, including Neanderthals, should be behaviorally distinct from modern humans.

One possibility is that the association between Neanderthal fossil remains and the sophisticated artifacts has to do with mixing of layers in the cave—the Neanderthal remains accidentally wound up in the same layer as body ornaments, rings, and pendants.

A new study of the French cave affirms this explanation. Researchers carefully applied radiocarbon dating to the different layers in the cave, expecting that deeper layers would measure progressively older than the upper layers. However, they discovered that the layers’ dates were all over the place. This unearthing indicates that the cave layers were mixed, perhaps by some of the last occupants.

These results raise questions as to whether Neanderthals ever possessed the capacity for symbolic thought—findings in line with RTB’s human origins model.

  1. Thomas Higham et al., “Chronology of the Grotte du Renne (France) and Implications for the Context of Ornaments and Human Remains within the Châtelperronian,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 107 (2010): 20234–39.
  2. For details, see Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross, Who Was Adam? (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2005).
  3. Video – Were Hominids Human?