Geoscience Research Institute

Fossil Humans

1. Were there really cave men?1

There were humans who lived in caves, and there may be some who still do. This does not mean that the majority of prehistoric humans inhabited caves. Evidence for human occupation and activity is often found in sediments formed in open environments, such as lake shores and river banks, even though remains of open-air artificial shelters are rare.2 This scarcity could be a consequence of use of construction material with low preservation potential (such as wood or plant fibers). Cave occupation by humans can be inferred from several lines of evidence. Human skeletal remains found in cave deposits are obviously a potential indicator, even though animals or physical processes (such as debris flows) could transport them from the outside. In some cases, articulated human skeletons found in caves have even been interpreted as intentional burials, although some suggest these could also be natural preservations of corpses.3 The best evidence of cave dwelling by humans is offered by association of human skeletal remains with stone tools, fragments of processed animal bones (possibly linked to butchering of carcasses) and remains of hearths, such as in the Amud Cave, Israel.4 Finally, a fascinating legacy of cave occupation by prehistoric humans are cave paintings found in tens of southern European caves, such as the Grotte Chauvet in France.5 Many of these paintings show an impressive level of skill in figurative representation, with realistic depictions of animals. Living in caves is not evidence of “primitive” intelligence. Cro-Magnon man, for example, could be thought of as a cave man because he is believed responsible for some of the remarkable paintings in the southern European caves. Cro-Magnon humans were essentially the same as modern Europeans, and probably represent prehistoric Europeans.6 They clearly had a high level of intellectual, artistic and technological achievement.

2. Are there really fossils that look like primitive humans?

Fossils have been found that appear to be human, but with traits that are not found in living humans. The Neanderthals are one such example, along with a group of other fossils called the “erectines.” The erectines include “Java Man,” “Peking Man,” and several types from Africa and other places. These appear to have been human, but somewhat different in form from any living humans. Creationists generally interpret these fossils as extinct races of humans.7

3. Were Neanderthals true humans?

Many creationists believe Neanderthals were truly humans,8 and some evolutionists would probably agree, although with some reservations.9 Neanderthals may occasionally have lived in caves, they sometimes buried their dead in caves, but that does not imply they were not human. The skull was shaped differently from most modern humans, with marked brow-ridges, no protruding chin and a more oblong braincase that was larger on average than modern humans. They apparently had culture and a high degree of intelligence. Neanderthals had some unique traits, but shared most of their features with modern humans. Some of the differences in their skulls may have been partially produced by responses to harsh climate and food that was very tough to chew. They apparently were more powerfully built than people living today.10 Recent sequencing of mitochondrial DNA from Neanderthal bones indicates that Neanderthal DNA sequences are somewhat different from those of living humans, but there is evidence of interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans like those living today.11 Anatomically, Neanderthals seem to have been a separate race of humans with adaptations for living under harsh conditions.

4. What are “archaic” human fossils?

There is a group of skeletal material that does not easily fit in any of the other categories, and are typically referred to as “archaic Homo sapiens.”12 They are sometimes given separate species names such as Homo heidelbergensis, Homo rhodesiensis and possibly Homo antecessor. Neanderthals are also included as Homo neanderthalensis. They generally have heavy brow ridges, somewhat like the “erectines” (discussed below). Their brain space is larger than in the erectines, but (except for Neanderthals) smaller than in modern humans. Creationists usually accept them as part of the human kind.

5. What were the erectines?

Numerous fossils with human-like upright posture but with skulls that differ from living humans have been found in Asia, Africa and southeastern Europe. Their brains were smaller than average modern humans, overlapping the lower end of the range of modern humans. Their skulls had thick bones, heavy brow ridges and lacked a chin. One of the most complete examples is “Nariokotome Boy,” who was already over 152 cm (5 feet) tall when he died at an age of 8-11 years old.  Typical adult height was near 179 cm (5’ 10”). There is evidence that the erectines made tools and used fire. Creationists commonly consider the erectines to be humans of a race that no longer exists. Inbreeding and poor living conditions may have contributed to their unique anatomical features.

6. What were the australopithecines?

Australopithecines include a diverse group of extinct apes that seem to have been able to walk upright, although there is some uncertainty over the extent of their bipedalism. The group includes Australopithecus and Paranthropus, and possibly Ardipithecus and Kenyanthropus. Australopithecus is the best known of the group. They had several skeletal traits that were intermediate between apes and modern humans, but had a chimp-sized brain, and some features that suggest they lived in trees. There is some evidence they may have had some difficulty walking upright, much as modern chimpanzees do.13 The australopithecines are here interpreted as an extinct type of ape, not linked to human ancestry.

7. Do fossil foot bones of australopithecines indicate they were fully bipedal?

Foot remains of australopithecines are extremely rare. Reconstructions of locomotion style are therefore based on a very little and often fragmentary sample size, cautioning against sweeping generalizations. The most notable examples of fossilized australopithecine foot bones include:

-Lucy (AL 288-1, Australopithecus afarensis): a couple of phalanges and an ankle bone (talus), with the possibility of reconstructing its articulation with the distal part of the tibia;

-“Little foot” (Stw 573, A. africanus): ankle bone, part of the mid foot, and part of the big toe bones, in articulation.14

-Relatively abundant material from Ethiopia (including ankle and heel bones, toe bones, and even a relatively complete foot) not always of certain attribution, but most often ascribed to A. afarensis.

-Material from A. sediba (South Africa), including an articulated tibia-ankle-heel set and some disarticulated toe bones.15

Authors assessing these remains generally support to some extent the inference of bipedal locomotion in australopithecines. However, different opinions exist on the exact typology of bipedalism or the degree of conjunct arboreal lifestyle.16 This uncertainty stems from a significant feature of all remains: they invariably present a MOSAIC distribution of characters. This term is used to illustrate the fact that some aspects of the fossil material may look similar to the foot of modern humans while at the same time other aspects are more ape-like. For example, Lucy’s ankle bone articulates with the extremity of the tibia in a way similar to modern humans, but the toe bones are longer and curved, a more ape-like trait. The mosaic configuration is also different from case to case, so that a particular bone (e.g., the ankle bone) can be the most “modern-looking” element in one specimen of australopithecine but the more ape-like looking in another one.

This mosaic configuration has challenged the conventional evolutionary view of a gradual and incrementally linear emergence of bipedalism, introducing a more complex scenario with occurrence and often coexistence of different degrees and forms of bipedalism among hominin fossils species.17 This complexity contrasts with what is often presented to the general public, as if human evolution was a nicely resolved example of a gradual evolutionary sequence.

8. Is there an evolutionary sequence leading from apes to humans?

Not really. There are several types of fossils that have mixtures of human-like traits and ape-like traits. Attempts have been made to arrange them in a sequence from fewer to greater numbers of human-like traits. Australopithecines have the fewest human-like traits, followed by the “erectines,” the “archaic” group, and then Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon. The sequence appears convincing to some people, and is interpreted as an evolutionary lineage.18 However, known australopithecines and other examples are commonly considered to be branches off the evolutionary tree that lead to humans rather than direct ancestors. Creationists emphasize the significance of the differences between the australopithecines and the genus Homo (in which humans are categorized) and reject australopithecines as human ancestors.19 The fragile and fragmentary nature of the data, the territoriality of the scientists who have discovered many of the most important fossils, and the influence of philosophical presuppositions combine to make it difficult to sort out fact from conjecture. New discoveries often upset previously accepted schemes of relationship, and the proposed evolutionary relationship of humans and fossil apes remains controversial. Fossil human remains follow a pattern seen in many other groups in which more profound diversity appears first followed by extinction of many lines and survival of one type, in this case the type we call modern humans.

9. What about the giant humans that lived before the flood? Have any been found?

The Bible does not clearly state that all antediluvians were giants. For all we know, some of them may have degenerated in size before the Flood came. The presence of the antediluvian “Nephilim,” a word sometimes translated as “giants,” is mentioned only once, in Genesis 6:4. Apocryphal books may contain references to giant antediluvians, but there is no clear indication that all pre-flood humans were giants. In 2002, the website Worth1000.com sponsored a contest titled “Archaeological Anomalies 2” that solicited photos altered to show archaeological hoaxes. Several of the altered photos showed fake giant human fossils (see for example: http://fx.worth1000.com/entries/18533/giants) and circulated on the internet, but they were never intended to be accepted as valid. Since then other similar hoax images have been circulated, but no confirmed antediluvian human fossils have been found, whether giants or ordinary-sized humans.

10. Was there really a “Stone Age”?

The term “Stone Age” is used to refer to an interval of human history pre-dating the production of historical records, such as written documents, and characterized by the abundant occurrence in archeological sites of lithic (=made of stone) tools. Tens of thousands of these tools have been discovered, described, and classified based on their shape and inferred function. Many of them are highly refined objects obtained through precise preparation techniques, and all require high levels of dexterity for their production.20 Some trends can be observed in the types of stone tools found at different localities, allowing for further subdivision of the “Stone Age” into smaller sub-intervals. Some of these trends are interpreted as evidence for progressive emergence of technical and cultural sophistication. Creationists may interpret the same trends as related to post-flood dispersal and re-diversification of prehistoric human groups. At least the most recent Stone Age sites include tools made with materials other than stone, such as bone, ivory, and antler. It is also possible that tools made of less durable material (such as wood) were fabricated alongside stone tools, but were not preserved. This possibility is supported by sporadic but significant findings, such as the discovery of wooden spears in an Old Stone Age archeological site.21

11. Did humans hunt mammoths?

The mammoth is an extinct type of elephant. The evidence that some human groups interacted with populations of mammoths includes the occurrence of mammoth bones associated with stone tools and showing tool marks, shelter structures made of mammoth bones, tools and ornaments made from mammoth tusks, and cave paintings representing mammoths.22 However, the question of how much active hunting humans performed on mammoths is more difficult to assess. Only a few examples have been found of mammoth bones displaying damage from hunting and with embedded tool fragments indicative of direct hunting.23 The extinction of mammoths was coeval with the disappearance of several other large-sized animals, and has often been at least in part attributed to intensive hunting by humans. However, the causal correlation is not clear, and possible alternative explanations (including loss of habitat due to drastic changes in climate, and kill off due to parasitic infections) have been suggested.24

12. How did the races of humans originate? Are some of them marked by a curse?

All humans are living under the curse of sin, and it is doubtful that this applies to any one race more than others. Races readily develop when small groups are isolated for many generations. Distance, language, and physical barriers may all act as isolating mechanisms. When the languages were confused at Babel, small groups may have dispersed to various places, became isolated and developed into different races. Some racial features may be the result of the fact that certain physiological features are advantageous in particular environments. Skin color is one example.25  Sunlight is needed in order to produce vitamin D. People with excessive melanin in their skin may suffer from lack of vitamin D in areas with low amounts of sunlight, such as near the poles. Light-colored skin is advantageous in polar latitudes, such as Scandinavia. However, too much sunlight results in destruction of folate (sometimes called vitamin B9), and increases the risk of skin cancer. Melanin is a dark skin pigment that protects those who live in tropical climates from excessive sunlight, making dark skin advantageous in equatorial latitudes. In general, traits such as skin color, associated with various racial groups are controlled by multiple alleles and do not require specific mutations to produce variation. The ability to vary appears to have been engineered into humans, just as in other kinds of organisms.

13. What unsolved questions about fossil humans are of greatest interest?

Why do we not find any human fossils that appear to have been buried by the Flood? What is the explanation for fossils with mixtures of ape-like and human-like characteristics? Why are human fossils only found in the uppermost layers of the geologic column rather than being mixed into lower layers?


[1] For additional information see Nalin, R. Where do humans come from? In Gibson, LJ and Rasi, HM, eds., Understanding Creation, Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 188-197.

[2] Demay, L., Péan, S., Patou-Mathis, M., 2012. Mammoths used as food and building resources by Neanderthals: Zooarchaeological study applied to layer 4, Molodova I (Ukraine). Quaternary International 276–277, 212-226.

[3] Gargett, R.H., 1999. Middle Palaeolithic burial is not a dead issue: the view from Qafzeh, Saint-Césaire, Kebara, Amud, and Dederiyeh. Journal of Human Evolution 37, 27-90.

[4] Rabinovich, R., Hovers, E., 2004. Faunal analysis from Amud Cave: preliminary results and interpretations. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 14, 287-306.

[5] Balter, M., 1999. New Light on the Oldest Art. Science 283, 920-922.

[6] (a) Semino O, Passarino G, Oefner PJ, + 17 other authors. 2000. The genetic legacy of Paleolithic Homo sapiens sapiens in extant Europeans: a Y chromosome perspective. Science 290:1155-1159; (b) Arsuaga JL.1999. El Collar del Neandertal: En Busca de los Primeros Pensadores. Madrid: Ediciones Temas de Hoy. See also: (c) Prideaux T. 1973. Cro-Magnon Man. NY: Time-Life Books.

[7] Lubenow, ML. 2004. Bones of Contention: A Creationist Assessment of Human Fossils. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[8] Cuozzo, J. 1998. Buried Alive: The Startling Untold Story About Neanderthal Man. Green Forest, AR: Master Books.

[9] Stringer, C. and P. Andrews. 2005. The Complete World of Human Evolution. New York: Thames and Hudson.

[10] Ruff CB, Trinkaus E, Holliday TW. 1997. Body mass and encephalization in Pleistocene HomoNature 387:173-176

[11] Green KE et al. 2010. A draft sequence of the Neandertal genome. Science 328:710-722.

[12] Wikipedia article “Archaic humans,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaic_humans, Accessed 12 September 2013.

[13] Spoor F, Wood B, Zonneveld F. 1994. Implications of early hominid labyrinthine morphology for evolution of human bipedal locomotion. Nature 369:645-648.

[14] Clarke, R.J., Tobias, P.V., 1995. Sterkfontein member 2 foot bones of the oldest South African hominid. Science, 269/5223, 521-524.

[15] Zipfel, B., DeSilva, J.M., Kidd, R.S., Carlson, K.J., Churchill, S.E., Berger, L.B., 2011. The Foot and Ankle of Australopithecus sediba. Science, 333/6048, 1417-1420.

[16] See, e.g., a) Ward, C.V., Kimbel, W.H., Johanson, D.C., 2011. Complete fourth metatarsal and arches in the foot of Australopithecus afarensis. Science, 331/6018, 750-753; b) Zipfel et al., op. cit.; c) Haile-Selassie,Y., Saylor, B.Z., Deino, A., Levin, N.E., Alene, M., Latimer, B.M., 2012. A new hominin foot from Ethiopia shows multiple Pliocene bipedal adaptations. Nature, 483/7391, 565–569.

[17] Harcourt-Smith, W.E.H., Aierllo, L.C., 2004. Fossils, feet and the evolution of human bipedal locomotion. Journal of Anatomy, 204/5, 403-416.

[18] See e.g., Stringer, C. and P. Andrews. 2005. The Complete World of Human Evolution. New York: Thames and Hudson. An older collection of some important papers in this field is found in: Ciochon RL, Fleagle JG, editors. 1993. The Human Evolution Source Book. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

[19] See e.g., Lubenow, op. cit.

[20] Ambrose, S.H., 2001. Paleolithic technology and human evolution. Science 291, 1748-1753.

[21] Thieme, H., 1997. Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany. Nature 385, 807-810.

[22] (a) Conard, N.J., 2003. Palaeolithic ivory sculptures from southwestern Germany and the origins of figurative art. Nature 426, 830-832; (b) Demay, L., Péan, S., Patou-Mathis, M., 2012. Mammoths used as food and building resources by Neanderthals: Zooarchaeological study applied to layer 4, Molodova I (Ukraine). Quaternary International 276–277, 212-226; (c) Nikolskiy, P., Pitulko, V., 2013. Evidence from the Yana Palaeolithic site, Arctic Siberia, yields clues to the riddle of mammoth hunting. Journal of Archaeological Science 40, 4189-4197.

[23] See Nikolskiy & Pitulko, op. cit.

[24] (a) Dayton, L., 2001. Mass Extinctions Pinned on Ice Age Hunters. Science 292, 1819; (b) Stuart, A.J., Kosintsev, P., Higham, T., Lister, A., 2004. Pleistocene to Holocene extinction dynamics in giant deer and woolly mammoth. Nature 431, 684-689.

[25] Jablonski, NG and G Chaplin. The evolution of human skin coloration. Journal of Human Evolution (2000) 39:57-106.