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Apologetics Press :: Sensible Science

Neanderthals—Missing Link or Diseased?
by Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

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Anatomical variation among humans is a fact of life. If this were not the case, medical supply companies would need only to produce “standard-sized” materials in order to treat males and females. The extent of human anatomical variation bridges a vast spectrum—and proof of this can be found in any auditorium containing as few as 200 individuals. For example, some individuals are “big-boned.” Others have an abundance of body hair, or perhaps possess small ears. Still others may have inherited large noses or chiseled chins. Aside from these external differences, humans also possess internal differences. For instance, we know that the blood vessels which supply the heart can vary a great deal, as does the size of the human brain (anywhere between 900-2000 cc). This natural variation accounts for extensive morphological diversification, but there are also many abnormalities associated with sickness and disease that result in additional anatomical differences. So how does all of this variation affect the fossil record?

Many of the Neanderthal fossils have been unearthed in northern European regions that do not get much sunlight. Remains have been found in places such as Saint-Césaire, France, Neander Valley, Germany, Biache, France, Santa Croce Cave, Italy, and Ehringsdorf (Weimar), Germany. A persistent decrease in sunlight may very well have played a critical role in bone structure differences recorded in fossil remains that have been identified as “Neanderthals.” Sunlight is critical for the production of vitamin D in humans. An absence can lead to bone abnormalities resulting from vitamin D deficiency. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard noted:

Vitamin D is unusual in that we don’t get it from our food: We synthesize it by being out in the sun.... In the northern part of the United States, even if you do go outside in the winter, the sun isn’t high enough on the horizon to activate the synthesis of vitamin D in the skin (2005, 26[10]:33).

When he was asked if being just a little low on vitamin D can actually cause disease Willett remarked: “Rickets is just the tip of the iceberg. Low vitamin D levels increase the risk of certain cancers, possibly multiple sclerosis as well, and possibly other conditions like asthma” (26[10]:33).

In his book Bones of Contention Marvin Lubenow affirmed:

Health factors can be reflected in the skeleton, especially a vitamin D deficiency resulting in rickets. J. Lawrence Angel (Smithsonian Institution) writes: “Pelvis and skull base tend to flatten if protein or vitamin D in diet is inadequate.” This was the diagnosis of Rudolf Virchow, “the father of pathology,” when he examined the rather flattened skullcap of the first Neanderthal discovery. He was overruled by those who favored an evolutionary interpretation. In 1970, Francis Ivanhoe published in Nature an article entitled, “Was Virchow Right about Neanderthal?” He presented a strong case based on diagnostic evidence that the Neanderthals were really modern humans who suffered from rickets (1992, pp. 76-77, parenthetical item in orig.).

How many fossilized remains have been inaccurately classified as a Neanderthal (or other species) simply because their bony elements were abnormal due to sickness or disease? How many individuals living today who suffer from rickets, arthritis, or multiple sclerosis would likewise be incorrectly classified as Neanderthal if their bones were fossilized and dug up years later?

In the summary of his analysis on Neanderthals, Lubenow observed:

Still another possible explanation of the Neanderthal morphology is disease, especially syphilis. D. J. M. Wright (Guy’s Hospital Medical School, London) observed that “In societies with poor nutrition, rickets and congenital syphilis frequently occur together. The distinction between the two is extremely difficult without modern biochemical, seriological, and radiographic aids.” Based upon his examination of the Neanderthal collection at the British Museum, Wright found a number of features in the Neanderthal’s morphology compatible with congenital syphilis. These conditions are seen in both child and adult skulls (p. 77, parenthetical item in orig.).

And yet, these conditions are never mentioned by the popular media or in science textbooks.


A comparative study on tooth growth has further indicated there is no difference between Neanderthals and humans. Ohio State professor Debbie Guatelli-Steinberg and her colleagues compared tooth growth of Neanderthals to three groups of modern humans. They identified the duration of enamel formation in all groups and then compared their findings. In the abstract of their report they noted: “Thus, Neanderthal tooth growth and, by extension, somatic growth, appears to be encompassed within the modern human range of interpopulation variation (2005, 102[40]:14202, emp. added). Simply stated, their result demonstrated that tooth growth of Neanderthals fell within the normal range of modern humans. They went on to observe: “This study demonstrates that Neanderthal anterior tooth imbricational [overlapping—BH] enamel formation times are within the range of variation that three modern human populations exhibit” (102[40]:14201).

In the conclusion, Guatelli-Steinberg and colleagues commented:

Our data show that anterior tooth perikymata [Pits located around the long microscopical prisms of tooth enamel—BH] counts cannot be used to distinguish Neanderthal growth rates from the range of variation in modern humans once the latter is adequately assessed. If anterior tooth crown formation periods reflect overall growth periods, then our study suggests that Neanderthals did not reach adulthood any more quickly than do modern humans (102[40]:14201).

Were the data reported and interpreted by an unbiased observer, the question would be raised as to whether these were really two separate species.

Bruce Bower reported on another study regarding the dates assigned to Neanderthals that is adding considerably to this debate (see Bower, 2005). He noted: “Around 36,000 years ago, Neanderthals and people lived side by side in southwestern France for at least a millennium, according to a newly assembled chronology of ancient occupations there.” He went on to suggest that Neanderthals “borrowed toolmaking techniques from neighboring Homo sapiens” (2005). While the dates assigned to this discovery are based on faulty assumptions, it is worth noting that scientists are now contending that “Neanderthals” knew how to make tools and artistic works.

The myth of Neanderthal has been propagated long enough. Time has come for individuals to admit the obvious. All of the grandstanding and propaganda aside, Neanderthals were nothing more than modern humans. A simple look around your home or workplace will reveal that human anatomy varies 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.


Bower, Bruce (2005), “French Site Sparks Neanderthal Debate,” Science News Online, 168:12, [On-line], URL:

Guatelli-Steinberg, Debbie, Donald J. Reid, Thomas A. Bishop, and Clark Spencer Larsen (2005), “Anterior Tooth Growth Periods in Neanderthals were Comparable to Those of Modern Humans,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(40):14197-14202, October 4.

Lubenow, Marvin (1992), Bones of Contention (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Willett, Walter (2005), “Got Vitamin D?,” Discover, 26(10):33, October.

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