Are There Human Fossils in the "Wrong Place" for Evolution?
The scientific field of paleoanthropology, with its continuing discovery of more and more evidence for human evolution, seems to strike at the heart of the creationist interpretation of Genesis. It is not surprising, then, that creationists would make every effort to try to debunk the growing evolutionary tree of fossil hominids.
The creationist debunking effort is two-pronged. The first prong is to attempt to discredit the fossil finds of paleoanthropologists such as Richard and Mary Leakey, Donald Johanson, Tim White, F. Clark Howell, and Phillip Tobias. The second prong is to claim that evolutionary scientists conveniently leave out fossil hominid finds that don't fit into the evolutionary pattern. This article will concentrate on answering the second creationist argument, responding to the various hominid finds that creationists say upset the evolutionary chronology.
"Out of Place" Fossil Hominids
In the Handy Dandy Evolution Refuter, Robert Kofahl makes the following statement:
Fossil remains, the same or essentially the same as modern man, which were found buried deep or in strata dated very old, have been ignored and are no longer reported to the public. Examples are the Calaveras, Castenedolo, and Olmo skulls. (p. 73)
In The Creation Explanation, Kofahl, with Kelly Segraves, goes into more detail. After four pages of charts and diagrams, which include the above-mentioned three skulls together with some accepted by modern science, the book declares:
... the Castenedolo, Olmo, and Calaveras fossils, all carefully documented, have been relegated to dusty museum closets and forgotten by the anthropologists because they do not fit into the accepted evolutionary scheme of human origins. Sir Arthur Keith, British scientist and dean of anthropologists in the first quarter of this century, in his book, The Antiquity of Man, described in great detail the Castenedolo, Olmo, and Calaveras fossils. He told how these fossils would have been accepted as genuine had they not so radically contradicted the ape-to-man dogma which rules the minds of most anthropologists. (p. 125)
Scientific Creationism, edited by Henry Morris, says much the same thing.
For example, there were the Castenedolo and Olmo skulls found in Italy in 1860 and 1863, respectively. Both were identified as modern skulls and yet were found in undisturbed Pliocene strata. The Calaveras skull was found in California in 1886, also in Pliocene deposits, and it too was a fully developed modern skull. These were well documented at the time, but later became more or less forgotten. (p. 177)
The Bible Science Newsletter comments:
Another example of how people react when the evidence does not agree with their philosophical position is the treatment which the Castenedolo skull received. This totally modern type skull was found in Pliocene strata, dated at one-half million years. Because this discovery did not agree with preconceived ideas, it is rarely mentioned in textbooks or other literature. (p. 5)
These creationists seem to be on to something, so let's investigate the existing data and examine each of these finds in more detail.
The Catalog of Fossil Hominids, edited by Oakley, Campbell, and Molleson, and published by the British Museum, states on page 235:
In 1860, G. Ragazzoni discovered hominid skeletal fragments on the hill of Castenedolo, but, since there was some doubt about their stratigraphical age, they were discarded as of no importance. In 1880, G. Ragazzoni found close to the site several hominid skulls with some associated post-cranial bones, including an adult female calvaria, fragments of parietal and occipital bones of an adult male, and isolated cranial fragments of a child.
This sounds impressive. Could creationists be right that these finds have been ignored? On page 107 in the 1957 issue of the classic, Fossil Men, by Boule and Vallois, we get our answer.
The bones from Castenedolo, near Brescia in Italy, belong to several skeletons of men, women, and children and were found on various occasions in a shelly bed of sand and clay, of marine origin and of Pliocene age. In 1899, the discovery of a new human skeleton was the subject of an official report by Professor Issel, who then observed that the various fossils from this deposit were all impregnated with salt, with the sole exception of the human fossils.... It seems certain that at Castenedolo we are dealing with more or less recent burials. [Emphasis added]
This opinion was originally published before 1900. At present the Castenedolo materials are still in their original matrix and are located in the Instituto de Antropologia in Rome.
The investigation of the age of Castenedolo did not end with Professor Issel. As recently as 1965, newer and more sophisticated methods were applied to these materials. The Catalog of Fossil Hominids states: "Analysis of the bones showed that their residual collagen (assessed by %N) is higher than that of any other fossil bones from central and northern sites which have been tested" (p. 236). The end result of the collagen studies demonstrated that the Castenedolo materials were intrusive burials into the Astian clays. In 1969, the British Museum made radiocarbon tests on the cranial materials, and the tests demonstrated that the age was Holocene, the most recent life period (approximately twenty-five thousand years ago), and not Pliocene.
"Evolutionists generally ignore modern-type skulls which have been found in so-called ancient rock strata, because such discoveries do not fit their theories," says the Bible Science Newsletter (p. 5). "One such skull is the Olmo skull."
In the case of the Olmo materials, the creationists are in error from the beginning. The Olmo skull fits perfectly into the evolutionary chronology and is a legitimate specimen, for here we find a modern skull cap in upper-Pleistocene gravels—exactly where it ought to be. As G. G. MacCurdy states:
Professor Ignio Cocchi, who made the discovery in 1863 and who carefully studied the pieces as well as the site, referred all to the Lower Quaternary. ... In 1897, Cocchi revised his opinion in regard to the Olmo cranium, referring it to the closing phases of the Quaternary [Pleistocene], a view which is no doubt more nearly in keeping with the facts. (p. 412)
The British Museum had developed a system and procedure for the relative dating of dentine, antler, and bone. The Catalog of Fossil Hominids describes it in this manner on page ix of the Introduction:
This system combines fluorine analysis with uranium estimation by radiometric assay (expressed as equivalent urania, eU308, in parts per million) and nitrogen determination by microchemical analysis has often proved useful when there has been some doubt as to whether a fossil bone or tooth is contemporaneous with its matrix, derived from an older layer, or intrusive by burial from a younger horizon.
Based on this objective lab test of the Olmo skull, it was concluded: "Olmo 1 more probably from gravel, that is, upper Pleistocene" (p. 248). This would make it fifty thousand to seventy-five thousand years old, placing it in the Upper Paleolithic (Stone Age) cultural period.
Although the Castenedolo find represented a simple burial in recent times and the Olmo was determined to be from Pleistocene strata, thus rendering both consistent with biological evolution, the Calaveras skull is a horse of a different color. It has turned out to be a deliberate hoax. Robert F. Heizer tells the story.
The Calaveras skull, discovered in 1866, was one of the most notorious archaeological hoaxes perpetrated in the nineteenth century. J. D. Whitney, an eminent American geologist, had been appointed in 1860 to carry out a geological survey of California. A year before the skull came to his attention, Whitney had published his belief that man, mastodon, and the elephant had coexisted in California, and, perhaps for this reason, he saw the skull as an interesting bit of confirmatory evidence. Whitney believed the skull was authentic and considered it as a reliable example of Tertiary man. Later inquiry by Holmes in 1901 and Hrdlicka in 1907 produced evidence that the skull was a recent one, first found in a nearby Indian burial ground and then secretly taken into the mine (probably by one of the workers) and left there as a joke. The skull was taken by many to be evidence of a fully developed human type dating from the Pliocene. (p. 177)
Besides the later data, published in 1901 and 1907, which produced evidence that the Calaveras skull was indeed a hoax and a recent burial in the shaft, Thomas
Wilson of Harvard University had run a flourine analysis on the skull in 1879. His results showed it to be recent and intrusive as well. The hoax became so well known that in 1899 Western humor writer Bret Harte wrote a satirical poem, "To the Pliocene Skull."
However, as noted by Christopher Weber, creationists are still using Calaveras Man to show the duplicity of paleoanthropologists. But duplicity seems to be on the other foot! Weber writes:
In the light of this data, it is strange that standard creationist works like Henry Morris's Scientific Creationism (p. 177), Robert Kofahl's Handy Dandy Evolution Refuter (pp. 78-79), and Kofahl's and Segraves's The Creation Explanation (pp. 120-125) still take Calavaras Man seriously.... On the other hand, these same authors never let evolutionists forget the Piltdown hoax. (p. 21)
And isn't it interesting that creationists cite Sir Arthur Keith as a supporting authority for their claims about the Castenedolo, Olmo, and Calaveras fossils, but ignore the fact that Keith also accepted Piltdown. Though Keith was truly the big name in human evolution in his day and showed proper scientific caution about these fossils, physical anthropology was in its infancy then. It is to be expected that new sciences often fail to get things right the first time. With experience, new tools, and new methods, however, physical anthropology has come a long way in recent years.
Another fossil hominid that creationists say is in the "wrong place" for evolution is the well-established Homo erectus. In this case, they don't try to claim that the fossils are getting dusty in museum closets because scientists are conveniently forgetting about them. Creationists instead imply that it is something of a "club secret" among scientists that Homo erectus doesn't fit properly into the evolutionary chronology and, in fact, isn't even ancestral to modern humans. Scientific reports about Homo erectus, creationists contend, show significant problems. Robert Kofahl declares on page seventy-six of the Handy Dandy Evolution Refuter: "When carefully compared, these reports show that Peking Man [Homo erectus pekinensis or Sinanthropus pekinensis] was an animal, probably a large monkey or baboon, not a man." It would seem from this that physical anthropologists have no knowledge of human, monkey, and baboon morphology and have never heard of multivariate analysis or biometrical studies. (Such an implication renders the creationist comment absurd.) But Kofahl goes on to say: "Later, Marcellin Boule, international authority on fossil skulls, made a careful study of the bones and the site and published his conclusion that Sinanthropus was an
animal which was eaten by the true men who had manufactured lime at the site." In regard to this statement, Professor H. Vallois, past director of the Institut de Paleontologie Humaine in Paris, France, informs me that Professor Boule wrote only one paper about the Sinanthropus. It was published in the 1937 issue of L'Anthropologie (p. 1). In this article, Professor Boule only considers that the Sinanthropus, a close relative of the Pithecanthropus, belonged to a group which had many of the characteristics of the big apes but was most certainly human. It may be noted that Professor Vallois was a close colleague of Professor Boule.
The famous French human paleontologist and Catholic priest, Henri Breuil, expresses himself as follows:
Sinanthropus kindled fire and did so frequently; he used bone implements and he worked stone, just as much as the Palaeolithics of the West. In spite of his skull, which so closely resembles that of Pithecanthropus, he was not merely a Hominian but possessed an ingenious mind capable of inventing and hands that were sufficiently master of their fingers to fashion tools and weapons. (Boule and Vallois, p. 144)
Teilhard de Chardin and the Chinese paleontologist, W. C. Pei, who both worked the site, concluded:
All the positive facts so far ascertained tend to give us the conviction that Sinanthropus is the Hominid who kindled fires and dressed the stones in the cave at Choukoutien. (Boule and Vallois)
But creationists have tried to do more than just make a monkey out of Sinanthropus (Homo erectus). All this was just a lead-in to their main point about its position in the evolutionary chronology. They base their argument on an interpretation of the relevant fossil finds from Australia.
In the October 1972 Scientific American, a brief note was made of the discovery in the Kow swamps of Australia of some ten-thousand-year-old cranial materials. The discussion consisted of three long paragraphs, from which the creationists quoted forty-three words in Scientific Creationism (Morris, p. 174).
Skulls that were buried a scant ten thousand years ago now suggest that, at a time when elsewhere in the old world the successor species, Homo sapiens, was turning from hunting and gathering to agriculture, some Homo erectus genes lingered on in Australia.
The creationist conclusion from these forty-three words is:
These Homo erectus skulls found in Australia show that modern man had already been in existence long before, ruling out Homo erectus as a possible ancestor; he is more likely a decadent descendant.
This is a classic non sequitur (as well as being a claim that disagrees with Kofahl's view that Homo erectus was a monkey or baboon).
The conclusions of the Australian prehistorians in the third paragraph of the same Scientific American discussion (page forty-eight) was for some reason overlooked by the authors and editors of Scientific Creationism:
Thorne and Macumber suggest that the overall skull form includes archaic features that preserve almost unmodified the morphology typical of Homo erectus fossils from Java, combined with elements of early representatives of Homo sapiens.... The archaic skulls represent isolated remnants of an even earlier population. [emphasis added]
It appears, as expected in an isolated continent such as Australia, that some Homo erectus genes lingered on. This does not say that what lingered on was Homo erectus. "Ruling out" state the creationists; "isolated remnants" say the Australian scientists. It appears obvious why the total article was not quoted.
The conclusion reached by Professor Rhys Jones of the Australian National University is:
Either there were two populations, an ancient archaic one being added to or partially replaced by a modern one which entered the continent some time before twenty-five thousand years ago, or the founding population itself showed marked polymorphism, perhaps due to hybridization in the region of embarkation. The first solution, which seems the most likely at present, also implies that a great slab of Australia's prehistory still awaits discovery.
To make certain that I was on the right track and was reading the materials objectively, I wrote to scientists at the Australian National University in Canberra, who subsequently informed me:
The ten-thousand-year-old Kow swamp crania are not H. erectus nor do they quite fit with the Neanderthal vintage early sapiens skulls from Wadjak and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. But they are extraordinarily robust and show a number of archaic features that seem to harken back to an early breeding line going back through Wadjak to the H. erectus populations of Pleistocene Java.
What we may have with the Kow crania is not a ruling out of Homo erectus as an ancestor but rather a remnant group showing extreme polymorphism due to population mixture. The creationist misuse of the sources is typical of their usual manner in dealing with the evidence for human evolution.
In the November 1981 Impact, published by the Institute for Creation Research,
Gary Parker states, ". . . We have evidence that people walked upright before Lucy was fossilized-the Kanapoi hominid, Castenedolo Man, perhaps even the Laetoli footprints discovered by Mary Leakey ..." (p. iii). He uses this material as support for his contention that Lucy could not have been our ancestor because "people" were around earlier. But let's look at the facts.
The Kanapoi material was discovered on an exposed erosion slope near Telek's volacano at the south end of Lake Rudolf in East Africa. The find was made by Dr. Bryan Patterson in 1965 while working with the Harvard University Museum of Zoology. This hominid discovery consisted of KP 271, a single elbow fragment (the distal end of the humerus). The specimen has been dated by faunal evidence and on correlation with Mursi (yellow sands) in Omo Valley at between 4 and 4.5 million years in age. Physical anthropologists are not jumping to any rash conclusions about this find. In general, the feelings are that the Kanapoi discovery is too fragmentary to allow much elaboration. Donald Johanson states in his book, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, that the Kanapoi find is "so fragmentary, so worn, so lost in the wastes of time" that there is nothing it can tell us "beyond what logic could have said anyway: that some kind of ape into hominid was developing in East Africa during that period" (p. 361).
As for the Laetoli footprints, they tend to support evolution and counter the arguments of those creationists who doubt that Lucy and other Australopithecines walked upright. Richard Hay and Mary Leakey, writing in the February 1982 Scientific American, noted that the Laetoli footprints date back between 3.5 and 3.8 million years. Lucy has been dated at about 3 million years old. Therefore, if the footprints at Laetoli in Tanzania, Africa, were made by Australopithecus afrensis, this merely shows that there was a period of stasis in the evolution of that hominid type lasting at least five hundred thousand years. There is nothing strange about that.
The hominid footprints at Laetoli were found in 1977 and 1978. Hay and Leakey declare:
The best-defined of the footprints are from one centimeter to three centimeters deep and hav, e clear margins. They show the rounded heel, uplifted arch, and forward-pointing big toe typical of the human foot.... The hominid tracks are clear proof that 3.5 million years ago these East African precursors of early man walked fully upright with a bipedal human gait. This was at a time when, both in stature and in brain size, the hominids of Africa were still small by later human standards. (p. 56)
The estimated height of these hominids averaged around 1.4 meters (four feet, seven inches).
Parker's comments that imply that these footprints must be in the wrong place for evolution are no more logical than saying that, because my great, great grandfather walked erect, he could not have been my ancestor. All the Laetoli
prints do is push back further into time the origin of hominids. When Parker says "we have evidence," he should note that evidence is the data upon which a judgment or conclusion can reasonably be based or by which proof or probability can be established. But the evidence of KP 271 and the Laetoli footprints fail to lend support to Parker's conclusion that Lucy could not have been our ancestor.
The creationist interpretations and comments on those human fossils that are supposedly in the "wrong place" for evolution are nothing less than pseudoscientific notions based on a need to defend biblical inerrancy. These notions constitute a collection of outdated information and views, unwarranted projections, and discarded hypotheses. Put into scientific guise, they do nothing to shake the "establishment" position that humans are a product of an evolutionary process. If the creationists had really established the truth of their numerous statements in the field of paleoanthropology, this indeed would have been an astonishing upset. And contrary to what creationists may lead people to believe, any firm evidence they had would have found a welcome place in the standard scientific journals. As it is, creationists have simply failed to make a case.
Bible Science Newsletter, Supplement to Bible Science Newsletter. March 1976.
Boule, Marcellin, and Vallois, H. 1957. Fossil Men. New York: The Dryden Press.
Hay, Richard L., and Leakey, Mary D. February 1982. "The Fossil Footprints of Laetoli." Scientific American, Vol. 246, No. 2.
Heizer, Robert F. 1971. Man's Discovery of His Past. Peek Publications.
Johanson, Donald C. 1980. Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Jones, Rhys. 1973. "Emerging Picture of Pleistocene Australians." Nature 246:5431:278-281.
Kofahl, Robert E. 1977. Handy Dandy Evolution Refuter. San Diego: Beta Books.
Kofahl, Robert E., and Segraves, Kelly L. 1975. The Creation Explanation. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers.
MacCurdy, G.G. (no date). Human Origins: A Manual of Prehistory. Vol. 1. Appleton and Co.
Morris, Henry M. (ed.) 1974. Scientific Creationism. San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers.
Oakley, Cambell, and Molleson. 1971. Catalog of Fossil Hominids. British Museum.
Parker, Gary E. November 1981. "Origin of Mankind." Impact, No. 101.
Scientific American. "Last Adam." October 1972.
Weber, Christopher G. Fall 1981. "Paluxy Man-The Creationist Piltdown." Creation/ Evolution. Vol. 2, No. 4