When my kids were little, there was a good chance my wife and I would spend our Saturday afternoons hanging out at Chuck E. Cheese’s, while our children ran wild, celebrating the birthday of one of their friends. They loved it. My wife and I endured the chaos (and the mediocre pizza). Two things that helped me through those Saturday afternoons were:
- Watching Chuck E. Cheese sing the birthday song.
- Playing the gigantic version of whack-a-mole.
Little did I know then that my fondness for this arcade game would serve me well in my work at Reasons to Believe. Lately, it feels like I’m playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, responding to the steady stream of claims that Neanderthals possessed symbolism—claims that inevitably don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.
Many people view symbolism as a quality unique to human beings, contributing to our advanced cognitive abilities and a reflection of our exceptional nature—in ways that align with the image of God. As a Christian, I see symbolism as a manifestation of the image of God. Yet, if Neanderthals possessed symbolic capabilities, this feature would undermine human exceptionalism (and with it the biblical view of human nature), possibly rendering human beings nothing more than another hominin.
The most recent claim of Neanderthal “symbolism” comes from a research team headed up by the Portuguese archeologist João Zilhão. Based on the dating of a flowstone that caps a deposit from the Cueva de los Aviones site in southeast Spain, these investigators argue that Neanderthals must have possessed symbolism nearly 40,000 years before modern humans displayed this property.1 The researchers age-dated the flowstone, using U and Th isotopes, to about 115,000 to 200,00 years in age. This date indicated to the researchers that the deposits must have been produced by Neanderthals, the only hominins in Iberia at the time. The deposits also harbored several other elements that convinced the researchers of Neanderthals’ capacity for symbolism: (1) red and yellow colorants, (2) ochred and perforated marine shells, and (3) shell containers with residues of pigmentatious materials.
Still, Some Questions Remain . . .
At first glance, the research team’s case for Neanderthal symbolism seems compelling, but with a little additional scientific scrutiny, things become much more muddled.
- For example, the age of the materials at the Cueva de los Aviones site may well be much younger than 115,000 to 200,000 years in age. An earlier study used radiocarbon methods to age-date food shells at this site to be only 45,000 to 50,000 years old. This dating lines up with the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe.2 While the authors of the most recent study dismiss the younger age, arguing that the amount of the radiocarbon in the shells is at the cusp of the method’s detection limits, this concern does not mean that the radiocarbon result is inaccurate. In fact, I would maintain that it is better to determine the age of the artifacts by directly determining the age-date of specimens taken from the deposit than to try to infer the artifacts’ age from complex geological structures associated with the deposit. Moreover, U/Th dating is susceptible to the influence of water flowing through the system. U is water soluble and Th is not. This difference in solubility means that water flow will remove U from the system, making the sample appear to be older than it is. In other words, geologists must make sure that the flowstone is a closed system before regarding the U/Th-determined age of the flowstone to be secure.
- Another point of concern has to do with whether or not the pigments and the ochred and perforated marine shells at the Cueva de los Aviones site are a reliable indicator of symbolism. Some archaeologists question whether the mere presence of ochre and other pigment materials at a site reflects symbolic capabilities. For example, one research team that also discovered red ochre at a Neanderthal site, dating to 200,000 years in age, concluded: “In our view, there is no reason to assume that the mere presence of iron oxide at an archaeological site, whether Neanderthal or modern human, implies symbolic behavior.”3 Likewise, the perforation of marine shells does not reflect intentional activity on the part of Neanderthals (or even modern humans). A research team from Poland and the UK have shown that predatory mollusks cause the same type of perforations as humans/hominins and at the same locations on the shell surfaces.4
So, given these concerns, it becomes difficult to conclude with any certainty that Neanderthals displayed symbolism based on this most recent study.
Does the Weight of Archaeological Evidence Support Neanderthal Symbolism?
To be certain, the scientific literature is replete with claims that Neanderthals buried their dead, made art and jewelry, mastered fire, made glue, etc. Hence, some scientists argue that Neanderthals displayed symbolic capabilities and advanced cognitive abilities, just like modern humans. Yet, every one of these claims is disputed and they do not withstand ongoing scientific scrutiny. (See the Resources section below.)
In fact, when the Neanderthal archaeological record is considered in its entirety (the isolated and disputed claims of advanced cognition notwithstanding), a clear and cohesive picture emerges about Neanderthal behavior. Though remarkable creatures, they did not have cognitive abilities on par with modern humans. These creatures were nothing like us.
Ian Tattersall and Noam Chomsky have pointed out that the Neanderthal archaeological record displays little evidence of technological innovation. Neanderthal technology remained largely static from the time they first appeared (around 250,000 to 200,000 years ago) to the time they went extinct (around 40,000 years ago). In contradistinction, an exponential growth in modern human technology has taken place since our inception as a species. According to Tattersall and Chomsky, this explosive rate of innovation is only possible because of our symbolic capacity and is clear evidence that Neanderthals lacked symbolism.5
Are Archaeologists Biased against Human Exceptionalism?
So, then, why are so many claims of Neanderthal symbolism published in the scientific literature? I am of the opinion that these claims are motivated by a desire to undermine the notion of human exceptionalism. It has become increasingly commonplace in some scientific circles to condemn anyone who argues for human exceptionalism as committing an outrageous act of speciesism (with speciesism on par with racism). And what better way to undermine the notion of human exceptionalism and to promote species equality than to make Neanderthals appear just like us?
Unfortunately, the limited archaeological data makes it easy to claim that Neanderthals displayed symbolism—even if they didn’t. As science writer Jon Mooallem has pointed out:
“. . . all sciences operate by trying to fit new data into existing theories. And this particular science [archaeology], for which the “data” has always consisted of scant and somewhat inscrutable bits of rock and fossil, often has to lean on those meta-narratives even more heavily. . . . Ultimately, a bottomless relativism can creep in: tenuous interpretations held up by webs of other interpretations, each strung from still more interpretations. Almost every archaeologist I interviewed complained that the field has become “overinterpreted”—that the ratio of physical evidence to speculation about that evidence is out of whack. Good stories can generate their own momentum.6″
Given this tendency in anthropology, one has to wonder how much an antihuman bias and a commitment to the metanarrative of Neanderthal exceptionalism influences interpretation of the archaeological record. Also, how much do these biases fuel claims about Neanderthal symbolism?
In fact, archaeologist João Zilhão, who headed up the research team that redated the Cueva de los Aviones site, is a well-known champion for Neanderthal exceptionalism.7 Science writer Michael Balter has described Zilhão as “the Neanderthal’s fiercest advocate, taking on any and all suggestions that their mental abilities might have been inferior to those of modern humans.”8 Anthropologists have accused Zilhão and his oft-collaborator Erik Trinkaus of treating Neanderthals as a “stone age minority group in need of affirmative action.”9 In fact, Zilhão’s bias is well-known by other anthropologists. Jean-Jacques Hublin from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology sees Zilhão on the equivalent of a mission from God. Referring to Zilhão, Hublin notes, “Those who are on a mission from God . . . are those who try to deny any evidence not matching with their personal crusade. The latest debates about Neanderthal abilities are one of the worst examples in which ideological issues have overshadowed scientific advance.”10
Published claims that Neanderthals possessed advanced cognitive capacities like humans usually receive quite a bit of fanfare. However, as in the game of whack-a-mole, once the evidence is carefully examined it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Claims of Neanderthal symbolism are almost always made based on a single, isolated find and they arise from highly speculative interpretations of the data at hand. When the full body of scientific evidence about Neanderthal biology and behavior is carefully weighed, it seems highly unlikely that these creatures possessed cognitive capacities on par with modern humans.