Science and Religion

The missing link is missing still. Can the hominid fossils of East Africa be fitted into a literal Genesis?

By Edward Lugenbeal, Ph.D., a paleoanthropologist on the staff of the Geoscience Research Institute, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


The numerous hominid (man or manlike) fossils found recently at several localities in the East African Rift Valley have settled some of the scientific controversies surrounding the origins of man—but not many! In some respects interpretation is now more difficult than ever, whether the perspective brought to the fossils is evolutionist or creationist. Before considering the puzzles posed by the new discoveries let's look at two of the major contributions the finds have made to our understanding of early hominids.

"Ape-men" or just apes?

Many creationists and some anthropologists have long argued that the australopithecines were "simply apes," 1 and were being viewed as "missing links" because of a mistaken interpretation of their posture. The new finds dramatize man's shortsighted proclivity for setting up spurious alternatives. The australopithecines may be neither missing links nor "simply apes." Once again Lucy, the partial australopithecine skeleton described in Part 1, offers what may be decisive evidence.

Tiny Lucy was clearly an upright bipedal walker (although her rather long arms may indicate she also did some tree climbing).2 To classify her or the other australopithecines as members of the Pongidae (ape) family would be misleading. The skeleton's dental characteristics and general body proportions seem to justify calling her a manlike (or should we say Ms.-like?) creature belonging to the Hominidae family. On the other hand, if she and the other australopithecines were not toolmakers and were basically noncultural in their life style, these behavioral and mental differences could be used to argue that true man (defined behaviorally) should be granted status as a distinct family. To do so, however, would move classification from its traditional moorings and establish behavioral criteria that are difficult to apply in a fossil context. Whether or not one classifies the australopithecines with man in the hominid family does not alter the fact that they are not "simply apes."

Could man have evolved from the-australopithecines?

The new finds reinforce the implications of Skull 1470. Man could not have evolved from presently known australopithecines if a form of true man was contemporaneous with them. Homo (man) fossils have now been reported in the Laetolil beds of Tanzania,3 the East Rudolf study area of Kenya,4 and the Hadar region of Ethiopia. 5 These fossils seem to be distinct from the australopithecines not only in brain size and skull morphology but also in subtle features of the hip, leg, arm, foot, and the other post-cranial bones. Detailed and sophisticated statistical studies have demonstrated the great similarity of some of these bones to modern man and their lesser similarity to the australopithecines. 6

The new finds suggest that two kinds of men lived to observe the australopithecines. Richard Leakey has uncovered a Homo erectus specimen in the same East Rudolf beds that have also yielded numerous Australopithecus bones. 7 The Afar Expedition in northern Ethiopia reports two palates that are said to resemble other material referred to as Homo erectus.8 The palates, from the lowest stratigraphic unit presently known in the Hadar region, are among the most ancient of hominid fossils known. // they are Homo erectus palates, then Homo erectus was contemporaneous with both the australopithecines and the Skull 1470 type of man. Obviously, the more types of fossil hominids shown to be contemporaneous, the harder it becomes to arrange the fossils in an evolutionary sequence.

Richard Leakey's discovery of a Homo erectus skull in Kenya provides additional confirmation of the reality of this variety of fossil man and his widespread distribution in Asia and Africa. Conservative creationists would do well to pay heed to this find in view of the tendency of some creationist literature to dispute the authenticity of Homo erectus and to raise the specter of fraud or gross bias relative to its interpretation in the scientific literature. For example, the usually reliable Duane Gish writes concerning Homo erectus (especially Peking and Java man):

"I believe the evidence indicates that Weidenreich's model of Peking man, on which these opinions have been based, borders on fraud, and that Java man and Peking man were most likely large monkeys or apes of some kind." 9

In my judgment, Leakey's latest finds should lead creationists to stop trying to hide from Homo erectus by calling him an ape. In spite of his exotic and, to our eye, "primitive" characteristics, presently available evidence leads me to the conclusion that Homo erectus should be accepted into the genus Homo. Primitiveness, like beauty, can exist in the eye of the beholder. The tendency is for the evolutionist to judge any characteristic that differs from our own as "primitive," while the creationist calls it "degenerate." The relatively small brain size, to be sure, remains a problem. Analysts of Homo erectus really can't be blamed for interpreting its brain size either as a "primitive" or "degenerate" trait.

Although the new discoveries help to answer certain interesting questions, we have yet to consider the issue of paramount interest to the student of Scripture: How can these early hominids of Africa be incorporated into a picture of origins based on a literal interpretation of Bible information? This all-important question is difficult to answer, since the available scientific evidence has not yet been systematically and seriously evaluated from a Biblical point of view. To do so would necessitate a major multidisciplinary effort involving experts in archeology, geology, fossils, radio active dating, and physical anthropology—even as the information coming out of East Africa is likewise generated by large teams of scientists from various disciplines.

A Biblically-based model for the hominids of East Africa must accommodate a number of somewhat puzzling but reasonably well-founded observations, some of which should be briefly mentioned.

The new Homo fossils, like Skull 1470, do represent the remains of true man, but the kind of man they represent differs from modern man.

When studied in detail most of the bones show at least subtle differences, the most unsettling of which is the markedly smaller brain size. Cranial capacity for the two new specimens that can be measured is around 700-800 cubic centimeters, compared to an average of 1,300- 1,400 for men today. 10,11 Brain size, therefore, is well below the normal range of modern man.

The small brains of the East African early men can be accounted for only partially by reduced overall body size. Body size, however, is a second important factor that must be incorporated into an interpretive model. The ancient men of the African Rift were demonstrably smaller than—or at the very best, equal in size to—some of their modern counterparts. They are certainly not the giants referred to in Genesis 6.

The relative antiquity of the fossils is well established and must also be accommodated by explanations offered for these early men. The East African hominid fossils include the oldest traces of man presently known. Because they are beyond the range of the C-14 method, the fossils are at least 4,000 years old. (Historical checks demonstrate that the C-14 method takes us back nearly 4,000 years before its validity can be seriously challenged.)

The fossils are also old compared to ancient civilizations. Artifacts of even the most ancient Near Eastern civilizations lie merely sprinkled near the earth's surface and are associated with the remains of modern species of plants and animals. The East African hominids are found deep in bedrock associated with many fossils of extinct species, though of the same general "kind" as today's animals. The pollen, plant, and animal fossils associated with the hominid bones in the rock layers are different from those found in today's world, indicating conditions unlike those with which we are familiar. The East African hominids are also ancient compared to other known human fossils. Skull 1470 and its relatives have been found in rocks deeper in the geological column (and therefore older) than the sediments containing modern man, Neanderthal or Neanderthallike types of man, and most (but perhaps not all) Homo erectus fossils.

The geological age of the East African hominids poses another important puzzle that must be resolved in any overall interpretation. Al though the fossils are remnants of the most ancient men yet found, they are, nonetheless, geologically "young." No traces of man (artifacts or bones) have been conclusively identified in the deeper portions of the sedimentary part of the earth's crust (below the Pliocene) even though animal fossils in these areas are common.

Also to be incorporated into an interpretive synthesis are the chipped stone artifacts recovered from rock strata containing the East African hominids. 12, 13, 14 If truly artifacts—and their identification as artifacts seems convincing—they are obviously crude. More sophisticated implements have been found in stratigraphically younger rocks and sediments in the same geographic area.

For the believer in a universal Flood, surely the first step in weaving the facts into a coherent story is determining whether the fossils are pre-Flood or post-Flood. The difficulty of determining the relationship of the African hominid-bearing rocks to the Flood is a measure of the amount of research and thought that is needed. At first glance many factors suggest a post-Flood age for the fossils: 1. The rocks are Pliocene-Pleistocene, and since Flood geologists usually interpret Pleistocene as post-Flood, then the Pliocene rocks of the African Rift, which are qualitatively similar, probably also should be post-Flood. 2. None of the fossils discovered in Africa are the giants that Genesis 6 describes as inhabitants of the antediluvian world. 3. Many characteristics of these rocks do not seem compatible with extensive transport or deposition below the waters of the Flood.

The hominid-bearing rock layers of the East African Rift Valley are dominantly volcanic ashes or lava flows, seemingly related to identifiable volcanoes or source areas in today's landscape. Numerous subaerially weathered horizons are described in the rock layers, including buried soil horizons with root markings. Deposits that appear to have accumulated in former salinealkaline lake beds containing fossils typical of such lakes are characteristic. Stromatolites (algal accumulations) that seem to be in position of growth are not uncommon. Accumulations of calcium carbonate (caliche or "hardpan") in association with weathered zones throughout the rock sequence suggest arid conditions. Salt crystals in the deposits imply the drying up of lakes that existed in earlier stages of the Rift Valley's history. Many such features have been reported in scientific descriptions of these rocks features that most easily fit a post-Flood environment. 15, 16, 17, 18

However, the rocks and the fossils have not been studied by Flood geologists. Similar features are re ported at greater depths in the earth's crust for rocks that Flood geologists feel must be interpreted as deposits of Noah's flood, given the constraints of Biblical chronology. Needed is firsthand field study of the thick East African hominidbearing rock layers. Since the age data associated with the Biblical genealogies add up to only a few hundred years between the Flood and Abraham, and the fossils are pre-Abrahamic (C-14 age greater than 4,000 years), the hominid-bearing rock layers are hard to squeeze into the few available centuries if they accumulated in post-Flood times under the operation of the normal processes of nature.

For his own protection the evangelist or pastor should be fully aware that the data from East Africa are a mixed blessing. The discovery of true man in the rocks of the African Rift is a step in the right direction, but only a first step. What is needed to close the door on unacceptable (to Biblical literalists) evolutionary interpretations is the discovery of large-brained modern man or his equivalent in the same strata that have yielded both "1470 man" and Australopithecus, capped by the discovery of antediluvian giants in deeper strata.

Such sensational discoveries would still leave the necessity of explaining how the small-brained men of East Africa could arise in the brief period before the Flood, or the much briefer period between the Flood and Abraham. Although such changes fall easily into the category of "micro-evolution" within a basic kind of organism (man), under the present ordinary processes of nature, physical changes of this magnitude take longer to emerge. How ever, should there be a dramatic discovery of modern man in the Pliocene and lower-Pleistocene rocks of Africa and antediluvian man lower in the earth's crust, few would hesitate to invoke extraordinary processes to account for the origin of the African hominids. Stu dents of antediluvia man might then feel free to explore the question of amalgamation. Or some might wish to speculate that divine intervention at Babel led to both the physical and linguistic variability that characterizes post-Flood man. No doubt any number of explanations reaching beyond the ordinary processes of nature and the boundaries of science could be offered. Speculation is bounded only by the limits of human imagination.

A newspaper article recently told of an interview with an anthropologist who spent time with Leakey in Kenya. 19 Although originally skeptical, the anthropologist came away convinced that Leakey had revolutionized anthropology. Newspaper articles are notoriously inaccurate, but the anthropologist supposedly commented, "We just don't know what happened. There's [sic] no real theories. Everybody's sort of astounded. ... It just throws us back to go." Whether or not this report is accurate doesn't detract from its apt description of the situation con fronting both evolutionists and creationists in studies of ancient man. It is "back to go" for all of us as we seek to interpret the flash flood of new evidence. Creationists can be grateful that the new finds leave earliest man, as Mary Leakey puts it, with "largely hypothetical ancestors."20 But creationists must also be ready and eager to confront the whole spectrum of information coming out of East Africa and to look at the early-man fossils in their full geological and archeological context.

Fortunately, the Lord promises wisdom if we but display the faith to claim this promise (James 1:5). A copious supply of wisdom is needed if we are to achieve a Biblically correct understanding of fossil man. But James also tells us that faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

To paraphrase a famous call to arms: "We have not yet begun to work!"


1 Duane T. Gish, "Richard Leakey's Skull 1470," ICR Impact Series, no. 11, page ii, in Acts and Facts, 3:2 (1974).

2 D. C. Johanson, "Ethiopia Yields First 'Family' of Early Man," National Geographic (December, 1976), p. 802.

3 M. D. Leakey, et al., "Fossil Hominids From the Laetolil Beds," Nature, 262:460-466 (1976).

4 Anonymous, "Should Fossil Hominids Be Reclassified?" ibid., 248:635 (1974).

5 D. C. Johanson and M. Taieb, "Plio-Pleistocene Hominid Discoveries in Hadar, Ethiopia," ibid., 260:293-297 (1976).

6 Henry M. McHenry and Robert S. Corruccini, "Fossil Hominid Femora and the Evolution of Walking," ibid., 258:657, 658 (1976).

7 R. E. F. Leakey and Alan C. Walker, "Aits, tralopithecus, Homo erectus and the Single Species Hypothesis," ibid., 261:572-574 (1976).

8 Anonymous, "Hominid Remains From Hadar, Ethiopia," ibid., 260:389 (1976).

9 Duane T. Gish, "Multivariate Analysis: Man . . . Apes . . . Australopithecines . . . Each Uniquely Different," ICR Impact Series, no. 29, page iii, in Acts and Facts, 4:9 (1975).

10 R. E. F. Leakey, "Further Evidence of Lower Pleistocene Hominids From East Rudolf, North Kenya, 1973," Nature, 248:654 (1974).

11 "New Hominid Fossils From the Koobi Fova Formation in Northern Kenya," ibid., 261:576 (1976).

12 Glynn L. Isaac, R. E. F. Leakey, and Anna K. Behrensmeyer, "Archeological Traces of Early Hominid Activities, East of Lake Rudolf, Kenya," Science, 173:1129-1134(1971).

13 Glynn L. Isaac and John W. K. Harris, "The Karari Industry: Early Pleistocene Archaeological Evidence From the Terrain East of Lake Furkana, Kenya," Nature, 262:102-107 (1976).

14 G. Corvinus, "Prehistoric Exploration at Hadar, Ethiopia, ibid., 261:571, 572 (1976).

15 M. Taieb et al,, "Geological and Palaeontological Background of Hadar Hominid Site, Afar, Ethiopia," ibid., 260:298-297 (1976).

16 W. W. Bishop and M. H. L. Pickford, "New Evidence Regarding the Quaternary Geology, Archaeology and Hominids of Chesowanja, Kenya," ibid., 258:204-208 (1975).

17 , "Geology, Fauna and Palaeo-environments of the Ngorora Formation, Kenya Rift Valley," ibid., 254:185-192 (1975).

18 Richard L. Hay, Geology of the Olduvai Gorge (University of California Press, 1976).

19 Duane T. Gish, "Richard Leakey's Skull 1470," ICR Impact Series, no. II, p. iii, in Acts and Facts, 3:2 (1974).

20 M. D. Leakey et al., "Fossil Hominids From the Laetolil Beds," Nature, 262:466 (1976).


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By Edward Lugenbeal, Ph.D., a paleoanthropologist on the staff of the Geoscience Research Institute, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

May 1978

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