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Strange-looking fossils of “early man” keep turning up in the caves and other archaeological digs in Africa, Europe, and Asia. They look a lot like us, and yet they are somehow different. What should we make of them, in light of scripture?
As far as stereotypes go, cavemen make easy targets—especially when transplanted into the twenty-first 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 (see “A History of Cave Dwellers”). 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.
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 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).
For old-time miners in Coober Pedy, Australia, caves offered a cool respite from the scalding temperatures in the Outback. While air conditioning has opened the surface for habitation, many residents still live in energy-efficient “dugouts.”
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 catchall 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.
In the middle of the Ice Age, families that settled in Europe began to display “classic” Neanderthal features, such as a bulge at the back of the skull. This specimen (called “the Old Man” because he was virtually toothless) was unearthed in 1908 at the La Chapelle-aux-Saints cave in France. Their powerful, compact bodies were well suited for the cold, similar to the Inuit of northern Canada today. Though they look somewhat different from us (for instance, their brains were larger), they were fully human—hunting, making jewelry, burying their dead, and doing the other things we do today.
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.2 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.3 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.
Cro-Magnons have a high forehead, narrow brow ridge, and protruding chin—very much like people today. The specimen above was found in 1868 near a rock shelter at Les Eyzies, France—the same region as the famous Lascaux cave paintings. Their distinctive features first appear among African families, but their features later appear on skulls worldwide. Nobody disputes that these talented artists and ivory sculptors were fully human.
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.4 However, they show a clear affinity with us.
Everything you might expect to find from the settlements of any non-industrialized 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,5 and the Lascaux caves in France long hid colorful cave paintings that may relate to phases of the moon.6 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.7 And the recent discovery of a buried dog’s skull in Předmostí (Czech Republic) suggests that Cro-Magnon man enjoyed the company of “man’s best friend.”8
In light of these finds, the idea that these particular post-Babel humans were some mysterious “other” loses its punch.
The earliest known human remains, from the early Ice Age, have a distinctive appearance, with a high brow ridge and receding chin. The skull of “Turkana Boy” (above) was found in 1984 near Turkana Lake in East Africa . From the neck down, his skeleton is virtually indistinguishable from ours. These early settlers from Babel were fully human—making hand axes, burying their dead, and settling three continents.
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),9 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.
The remains of three-foot-high humans were discovered in 2003 in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. Their facial features are different from other human fossils, but indisputably human. Scattered among their remains were tools for killing and cooking the small Ice Age elephants that they hunted. Small size does not diminish our humanity any more than large size does!
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.10 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 nonfossilized skeleton in 2003, dueling scientific papers have raised, lowered, and stretched the status of these so-called 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.11 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.