As far as stereotypes go, cavemen make easy targets—especially when transplanted into the 21st century. Their brutish way of dealing with contemporary situations earns a laugh on commercials and TV shows. They just don’t understand us modern humans, and their misunderstanding strikes humor gold.
But when we cut away the laugh track and the bumbling ways, we’re left with something of an enigmatic figure—a being without a settled place in our understanding of history. Perhaps, in fact, it’s our discomfort with not knowing what to do with cavemen that makes us laugh. So just who were they?
Before we go spelunking, we need to limit our scope somewhat. At its most basic, the term caveman simply means “a person who dwells in a cave,” which isn’t unheard of even today. But that’s rarely what we mean when we use the word. Instead, we’re usually talking about a group of ancient cave hoppers who left behind animal artwork, rough-hewn weapons, and bones—at least, that’s the common assumption. While the collective opinion of history and science has moved beyond considering these early humans as animal-like brutes, the term still carries with it the baggage of a being somewhat lesser than modern Homo sapiens (us today). And that’s unfortunate—as we’ll see.
Those early humans commonly classified as “cavemen” break down into several groups, scattered throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Calling these groups “cavemen” may, in fact, be somewhat misleading. Many of them simply found temporary shelter or buried their dead in caves, which tend to preserve remains and artifacts more often than houses in the open. (They probably preferred living in caves about as much as we do.)
Nevertheless, the term caveman is often used as a catch-all for peoples who lived in an earlier era in human history—the Ice Age. We’ll focus on five of these groups: Neanderthals, early Homo sapiens (Cro-Magnon man), Homo erectus, Denisovans, and Homo floresiensis.1 The first three have long been stalwarts of the caveman discussion, but the latter two have only recently been uncovered—the Denisovans in Siberia and Homo floresiensis (sometimes called hobbits) in Indonesia. 2
Neanderthals may be the most well-known of the five groups—with hundreds of individuals to study. After they served time as a separate “hominid” (human-like) species according to evolutionary scientists, DNA testing in particular has significantly trimmed their distance from Homo sapiens.3 This shouldn’t surprise us, considering the overwhelming evidence of their humanity.
In dozens of caves and rock shelters, for instance, we find evidence of bodies that have been carefully buried with all the care you might expect from a modern funeral.
Neanderthal remains have also been unearthed with mammoths and other big game bearing bone marks and other indicators that these animals were hunted and butchered in complex community activities. And everywhere Neanderthals are found (not always in caves), they have complex axes and other stone tools.
In fact, the title of “mere caveman” may be in jeopardy, as researchers recently unearthed a complex dwelling made from mammoth bones, which wasn’t in a cave at all.4 With all the similarities, however, Neanderthals weren’t exactly like us—their physical characteristics (such as larger brows in adults and wide nasal cavities) would certainly make them stand out today.
On the other hand, early Homo sapiens (often called Cro-Magnon man) would fit right in nowadays, though perhaps more likely on a North American football team than in an office building. The robust build, larger brain on average (1600cc vs. 1350cc), and DNA differentiate the European Cro-Magnon from modern humans.5 However, they show a clear affinity with us.
Everything you might expect to find from the settlements of any nonindustrialized people is found with Cro-Magnons. For instance, the Dzudzuana Cave in the country of Georgia contained wild flax fibers that suggest these early travelers sewed garments or wove baskets,6 and the Lascaux caves in France long hid colorful cave paintings that may relate to phases of the moon.7 Site after site reveals thousands of small, beautifully made javelins, arrows, and ornate artifacts, often with carvings and designs on them, such as the ivory pendant made from mammoth tusk that was found with the so-called “red lady” (actually a male) in south Wales.8
And the recent discovery of a buried dog’s skull in Pr ̆edmostí (Czech Republic) suggests that Cro-Magnon man enjoyed the company of “man’s best friend.”9
In light of these finds, the idea that these particular post-Babel humans were some mysterious “other” loses its punch.
That brings us to Homo erectus, a group that long held the title as most enigmatic and disputed of all early humans. As the name erectus implies, we’re meant to be amazed at their upright, two-legged gait that allowed them to tromp across Africa, Europe, and Asia. However, the Homo appellation (that is, human) came later. When these ancient humans were first uncovered in Java (Indonesia), their bones were trumpeted as Pithecanthropus erectus, which essentially means “upright ape-man.” That was certainly a misnomer.
What’s truly incredible is how widespread these early humans were. They may have built fires in the Middle East (as indicated by charred bones and plant remains),10 and they hunted across Asia and Europe, where we find many butcher sites and the stone tools they used. They must have built seafaring vessels of some sort to reach the Indonesian islands against the currents. In fact, we find their fossils before any other human remains. So we can safely say that their “primitive” ways got them pretty far. Not bad for a carless society.
Two new finds suggest that we may only be scratching the surface of the variety apparent in post-Babel humans. Recently, an unusually large tooth and a finger bone found in Denisova Cave in Altai Krai, Russia, point to a mysterious new group of wayfarers. The Denisovans, as they’re being called, occupied the region around the same time as Neanderthals.
But DNA testing of the finger and two other bones indicates that this new group differed from Neanderthals.11 Beyond that, we have only a handful of artifacts to understand these mysterious people, such as a stone bracelet that was ground and polished.
But the impact of the Denisovans has been relatively minor compared to the huge debate surrounding a group of tiny human skeletons. So far, nine members of this group have been found on the Indonesian island of Flores, giving us the tentative name Homo floresiensis. However, you may have heard them referred to as “hobbits,” which fits their three-foot (1 m) height.
Since the discovery of the first non-fossilized skeleton in 2003, dueling scientific papers have raised, lowered, and stretched the status of these socalled hobbits—all without a single strand of DNA (which has so far eluded scientists). Because access to the remains is so limited, the intrigue—and rancor—may continue for years.
Despite the debate, what’s found in the dirt on Flores reveals much about the inhabitants. Numerous charred bones of the dwarf elephant Stegodon—many of them juvenile—paint the picture of a group of opportunistic hunters who roasted up the small elephant that once lived on the island—perhaps leading to its extinction.
To do so, they employed a number of advanced stone tools, quite capable of slicing and dicing tough animal skin. And while we find no evidence of their boats, these people are most similar to Homo erectus found on Java. Since they lived on the island of Flores, this suggests they must have built boats that could fight against strong ocean currents to get there.
Variation among post-Babel humans has led to a great debate among evolutionists, who wonder where they fit on the roadway to being “truly human.” But that way of thinking misses the fundamental truth. When God created humans, He didn’t define our humanness in terms of physical characteristics. We aren’t human because we have two arms or legs or skulls of a certain shape or size. Our Creator, who is spirit, made us in His spiritual image.
Genesis reveals aspects of what this implies. Our early ancestors made musical instruments and tools, farmed, built cities, and otherwise represented God as stewards of His creation (Genesis 4). With that as our standard, we can cut through the confusion and bias. All those we call “cavemen” (probably a misnomer) show the same characteristics as the first humans in the Bible.
Neanderthals buried their dead and may have worn jewelry.12 Homo erectus seems to have divvied up jobs to prepare food and sailed the high seas. Even with little to go on, we can be fairly certain the Denisovans wore jewelry, and the much-maligned “hobbits” left tools useful for dicing up lunch. All uniquely human traits—traits that show creatures made in the image of God.
In other words, we can be sure that they all descended from Adam through Noah’s family. These certainly aren’t unique species, in the sense of being something “less than modern humans”—they’re just more evidence of beautiful variations in the appearance of individuals in our one unique race. Our relatives may have looked different, but they weren’t bumbling brutes. They had the very human and God-given ability to discover creative solutions in a dangerous, sin-cursed world. And they were all rebels from God, in need of His grace.
New DNA technology has allowed scientists to peer into the past by mapping the DNA of so-called cavemen. And they have found some noticeable differences. So, what do those differences really mean—are those early people somehow less “human” than we are?
Before we can answer that question, we first need to understand two related issues. What can DNA tell us about the differences among people? And how does the biblical account of human origins shed light on these differences?
The ability to map DNA is an amazing feat, considering the DNA is thousands of years old! Many ancient human remains are found in equatorial regions where heat and humidity have destroyed the DNA. However, remains of the Neanderthals and another group of humans discovered in a cave in southern Siberia, the Denisovans, have been found in cold, dry, protected areas that better preserved the DNA.
When the first draft of Neanderthal DNA was published, the researchers concluded that it is 99.7 percent identical to modern human DNA. They also found that approximately 1 to 4 percent of DNA specific to Neanderthals can also be found in modern Eurasians. This led them to conclude that a very small number of Neanderthals mixed with early modern humans and produced children. Neanderthals had a wide geographic distribution in Eurasia, from Spain to southern Siberia, and from Germany to the Middle East, so it is not surprising that more of their DNA is found in modern Eurasians as opposed to other populations, such as Africans.13
To date, approximately 80 genes have been shown to differ between Neanderthals and modern humans.14 These genes produce proteins that govern a wide range of functions such as metabolism (how we burn food), the growth of the skull, and skin shade. Further study of these genes may help us understand how Neanderthals were different and perhaps why they died out.
For instance, one gene produces a protein involved in skin and hair color. Rare variants of this gene among modern humans lead to pale skin and red hair. The Neanderthal gene has a variation so far unknown in humans today. It is likely that this variant led to pale skin and red hair in Neanderthals.15 If this is so, Neanderthals would have been able to absorb more sunlight than if they had darker skin. This would have been useful in producing enough vitamin D to live healthy lives in the northern regions.
Denisovan DNA is also similar to DNA in modern humans. Approximately 4 to 6 percent of DNA that is specific to Denisovans can also be found in modern Melanesians (those who live in the islands northeast of Australia).16 As with the Neanderthals, this indicates that very few Denisovans mixed with and produced offspring with early modern humans—at least with those in Southeast Asia.17
Both Neanderthals and Denisovans do have small-scale differences with modern humans. Before the first draft of Neanderthal DNA, they were sometimes considered to be different human species or subspecies. But this is an arbitrary, man-made designation since two modern chimps of the same species will have more DNA variation than Neanderthals or Denisovans have to modern humans. In light of the genetic evidence, Neanderthals and Denisovans are fully human and should be classified as Homo sapiens.
Many difficulties must be overcome to accurately sequence ancient DNA. Sequencing DNA involves determining the correct order of the individual components (bases) that comprise the DNA. Contamination and degradation are two of the biggest obstacles.18 Contamination comes both from bacteria found in the fossil (which can sometimes account for more than 90 percent of the DNA found!) and from bacteria transferred through handling by modern humans. Degradation occurs when the DNA is “chopped up” and certain DNA components are modified by chemical reactions. Fortunately, scientists have developed techniques that greatly limit the danger of contamination and degradation altering the actual human DNA sequence, so their impact is usually negligible.
Another issue involves the limited number of ancient individuals with viable DNA. For example, there are only two known fossil remains for Denisovans from a single cave. At the most, they represent two individuals. Compare that to the thousands of modern humans whose DNA has been sequenced. A small sampling of an ancient population may not truly reflect the full range of variety in that particular group.
The Neanderthal samples, in contrast, come from over a dozen different individuals at sites on different continents, so they are much more likely to represent the population as a whole. It is also important to acknowledge the many evolutionary assumptions that are made when comparing the DNA sequence of ancient individuals to modern humans.19 For example, a common human-chimp ancestor was assumed. One paper stated, “To estimate the DNA sequence divergence . . . between the genomes of Neanderthals and the reference human genome sequence . . . [we used] an inferred genome sequence of the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees as a reference to avoid potential biases.”20 Apparently the authors of the paper don’t consider assumed human-chimp ancestry as a bias, but it is! Creation scientists are actively studying methods to avoid these biases so that more valid comparisons can be made.
Researchers studying genetics have clearly established that Neanderthals and Denisovans were fully human. Any physical differences should be viewed as nothing more than variations that can occur within the human race descended from Adam and Eve. For a time, these descendants all lived together at the Tower of Babel. Following the post-Babel migration and late into the Ice Age, differing human populations began to appear in the fossil record, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans.
The next questions for creationists are how and why these differences appeared.21 How is much easier to answer than why! One possibility is that environmental pressures, such as the Ice Age, “selected” for or against traits within the range of human genetic diversity. (In other words, those that had a particular combination of characteristics survived in that environment, and others did not.) This may have led to the specific set of features found in Neanderthal people. Many animals, following the Flood and during the Ice Age, experienced an explosion of variations that allowed them to live and function well in new environments. This could also have been true for humans.
Other possibilities include genetic effects seen mainly in small populations. Small populations would have been typical for a period of time following the breakup of the human population at Babel, as people were separated based on language. The groups that left Babel would have begun with only a few reproducing individuals and not interbred initially with other groups.
A phenomenon known as genetic drift can cause certain genetic variations to become “fixed.” If the population is small, everyone with certain variations can die, without passing them down, and the survivors pass down just one variation to future generations. If no people are moving in or out of the population, characteristics like the pronounced brow ridge or the robust body form in Neanderthals can become dominant.
Another possible impact of the Babel breakup is the founder effect. The founders of each group leaving Babel might simply have differed from one another. Certain traits in one group might have been unknown among the founders of any other group. Those traits would then be unique to each group. Rather than being fixed by genetic drift, the Neanderthals’ pronounced brow ridge or robust body form may have been found among the founders of only one group after they left Babel. Those people may have migrated intentionally to places where they were most comfortable (similar to human behavior today).
As time passed, the different groups would have migrated, as humans have always done. People who had the traits of modern humans possibly interbred, at times, with the other groups, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans. Yet there seems to have been a sudden loss, or a dilution, of the characteristics possessed by those other groups. The genetic makeup of modern humans became dominant.
Inbreeding can have disastrous effects on small populations by amplifying defective genes. Maybe this is why Neanderthals and Denisovans eventually became extinct. We don’t know. Why this happened is still a mystery.
Caves have never gone out of fashion as a place to seek refuge. For instance, hermits lived in caves throughout the Middle Ages, and until recent times a clan of people were living in caves on the Mediterranean island of Malta. Even the Bible records a number of cave refugees, such as Elijah (1 Kings 19), David (1 Samuel 22:1), and Obadiah (1 Kings 18:3–4). After fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his daughters found shelter in a cave (Genesis 19:30).
It seems cavemen are simply that—people who lived in caves—and they have little, if anything, to do with evolution. What is not a mystery is that so-called cavemen, including Neanderthals and Denisovans, were fully human. They were among the descendants of the people scattered at the Tower of Babel—made in God’s image to bring Him glory.