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Computer-Generated Neanderthals

by  Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

Walk into any toddler classroom and take a minute to concentrate on the size and shape of the heads attached to those wobbly little bodies. It soon becomes evident that while the class may consist only of two year olds, the head size and shape of those tiny tots varies dramatically (as it does in an adult population). Parents who have more than one child are well aware of the fact that even children within the same family may have heads that are different shapes and sizes. Considering the fact that males and females grow at different rates, it is easy to see how a veritable plethora of skull sizes can exist for any given age range. Add to that the many childhood illnesses and diseases that can alter growth rates, and it becomes evident that while growth charts may indicate a “standard,” in actuality, children grow at incredibly different rates.

In the August 2, 2001 issue of Nature, Marica Ponce de Leon and Christoph Zollikofer authored an article which argued that the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) possessed a unique combination of craniofacial features that were notably distinct from modern Homo sapiens (2001). Using geometric morphometric methods, these two authors generated computer models of both Neanderthals and humans in order to visualize “complex patterns of morphological change during ontogeny” (p. 534). Basically, they examined skull sizes from supposed Neanderthals and modern humans in order to search for differences. While the overall plan may appear plausible, it leaves a lot to be desired in regard to the actual scientific data.

First, while the implication from the study is that complete skulls from both modern humans and Neanderthals were used to compute this difference, the “methods” section on page 537 of the article indicates that the Neanderthal data required an additional step. Since “complete” Neanderthal skulls do not exist, the researchers acquired the “volume data” from available skulls and then “generated three dimensional, graphical object representations of all specimens.” The authors then went on to admit: “We reconstructed the fossil specimens by using special-purpose virtual reality tools. Briefly, filling material was removed from earlier reconstructions, the isolated fragments were re-composed on the computer screen, missing parts were completed with mirror imaged counterparts, and taphonomic [the conditions and process by which things become fossilized—BH] deformation was tentatively corrected…” (p. 537). In other words, they took a bunch of bone fragments and allowed the computer to spit out a computer-generated skull. If pieces were missing (and they were in many places!), then the computer “filled in” what it thought the measurements should be.

The second problem with this study is that it was centered on early changes in skull structure, and yet the authors admitted to estimating the ages for all of the pre-modern fossils (see “methods for aging,” p. 537). Nevertheless, they still “assigned” the specific ages to these computer-generated reconstructions, which then were used in their data analysis. The Neanderthal sample was comprised of eleven “immature” and five “adult” specimens. The ages of the immature specimens were estimated to be: 0.5, 2.2, 3, 3.2, 3.5, 3.5, 5.5, 6.5, 8.5, 14, and 15 years old (p. 537). [Again, just to emphasize differences in physical characteristics, compare your 6-month baby picture with those when you were 5, 8, or 15—and those are just the changes you see in a single individual. Then imagine the vast differences found in an entire population!] The ages of the five adult specimens were not given. Most of the “aging” was accomplished using standardized dental scoring; however, as anyone with more than one child knows, teeth “come in” at their own pace and develop at different rates, not some predetermined rate that has been established by scientists. The authors then compared these fossilized samples to three “fossil modern humans” said to have been 100,000 years old. The ages for these samples were given as 3.5, 13.5 years old, and one adult. Additionally, the authors selected twenty-two specimens from around the world that were known to be modern humans. While their computer-generated graphics did indeed reveal differences between humans and Neanderthals, the physical evidence is much more truthful. Interestingly, their use of so many children is one of the downfalls of this particular study. Many of the Neanderthal skulls that evolutionists have examined have exhibited symptoms of rickets.

After discovering the first “Neanderthal” skullcap in 1856 in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany, German anatomist Ruldolph Virchow said in essence that the fossil was the remains of a modern man afflicted with rickets and osteoporosis. In 1958, at the International Congress of Zoology, A.J.E. Cave stated that his examination of the famous Neanderthal skeleton established that it was simply an old man who had suffered from arthritis. Francis Ivanhoe authored an article that appeared in Nature titled “Was Virchow Right About Neanderthal?” (1970). Virchow had reported that the Neanderthal man’s ape-like appearance was due to a disease known as rickets, which is a vitamin-D deficiency characterized by overproduction and deficient calcification of bone tissue. It causes skeletal deformities, enlargement of the liver and spleen, and generalized tenderness throughout the body. Dr. Cave noted that every Neanderthal child’s skull studied thus far apparently was affected by severe rickets. When rickets occurs in children, it commonly produces a large head due to late closure of the epiphysis and fontanels.

Even though Ivanhoe was an evolutionist, he nevertheless went on to note that the wide distribution of Neanderthal finds in various parts of the world explained the differences seen in bone configuration. The extreme variation in locations of these Neanderthal discoveries probably played a role in the diversity of fossils assigned to this Neanderthal classification. The differences likely were a result of different amounts of sunlight for a given area, which prevented or retarded vitamin D production (vitamin D is manufactured in the skin upon exposure to sunlight). In adults, a lack of vitamin D causes osteomalacia (softening of the bone). This softening often results in long bones “bowing” (a condition reported in many Neanderthal fossils).

Others have suggested that Paget’s disease may have played a role in the bone deformities observed in Neanderthal specimens. Paget’s (pronounced “paj-ets”) disease affects bones, which under normal growing conditions break down and grow back throughout a person’s life. In Paget’s disease, the normal process of bone growth is altered. The bone breaks down more quickly, and when it grows back again it is softer than normal bone. Soft bones can bend or break more easily. The area affected by Paget’s disease can become shorter because the bone bends. With Paget’s disease, the bone also can grow larger than before. While this disease can affect any bone, it most often affects the skull, the hip and pelvis bones, and bones in the legs and back. The authors of the Nature paper summarized their findings by stating:

The early appearance of taxon-specific features between Neanderthals and modern humans, the morphological distinctiveness of these taxa throughout later postnatal ontogeny, and the evidence for evolutionary stasis of taxon-specific patterns of ontogeny, all support the theory that Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens represent morphologically discrete, separate species, which belonged to distinct evolutionary lineages (p. 537).

A simple look around your home or workplace will reveal that human skulls vary considerably within any given population. Does this difference alone mean that some people are closer to a Neanderthal lineage than others? No. It simply demonstrates the vast variability that exists among humans on our planet. This study in Nature used fossil fragments and estimated ages, and did not take into account any oseteological deformities due to conditions such as rickets or Paget’s disease. Variation in the human race has existed since Adam and Eve, and will continue to exist as long as humans walk this Earth.

REFERENCES

Ponce de Leon, Marcia S. and Christoph P.E. Zollikofer (2001), “Neanderthal Cranial Ontogeny and Its Implications for Late Hominid Diversity,” Nature, 412:534-537, August 2.

Ivanhoe, F. (1970), “Was Virchow Right About Neanderthal?” Nature, 227:577-579, August 8.




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