Thursday, July 5, 2007

Million Year Old Human Tooth?

Do you ever wonder what to think about those news stories that talk about human finds that date back 100,000s to millions of years? I mean, what's that all about and how does it fit with Adam and Eve?

Case in point: You may have spotted the AP news story last Friday that Spanish researchers said they had unearthed a human tooth more than one million years old. The claim is that this is the oldest human fossil remain ever discovered in western Europe.

This prompted me to think that it might be good to mention a couple tips that may help you make sense of news stories like this.

Tip #1: While the word "human" may be used in the headline, it usually doesn't mean "human" the way normal people think of the term. From a Christian perspective, we think of "human" as referring to Adam and Eve and their descendants. Scientists call this specific species Homo sapiens sapiens. But anthropologists call practically any primate that walked on two legs a "human." So in this manner of speaking, every hominid from Australopithecines like "Lucy" (who were very much like modern chimps in size and intelligence) to others in the Homo genus such as Neanderthals (Homo sapiens neandertalensis) and everything inbetween are considered to be "human" by the scientific community. Very confusing.

Tip #2: Modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens; descendants of Adam and Eve) appear in the fossil record about 30,000 to 50,000 years ago. Even though anthroplogists refer to any hominid primates who walked on two legs as "human" all species that existed prior to 30,000 to 50,000 years ago were hominids, not Homo sapiens sapiens. If you can make a sharp distinction in your mind between hominids and modern humans despite what you hear news articles and scientists say, it will help a lot!

Now, with these rules in place, let's read an excerpt from last Friday's news article about this supposed million year old "human" tooth and see if it makes sense.
In 1994 at the nearby Gran Dolina site several Homo antecessor fossils were uncovered, suggesting human occupation of Europe around 800,000 years ago, whereas scientists had previously believed the continent had only been inhabited for around half a million years.

So right off the bat, we need to decipher how this news story is using the word "human." This sentence does not say that Homo sapiens sapiens lived in Europe 800,000 years ago. What it is saying that a different member of the Homo genus named Homo antecessor lived in Europe 800,000 years ago.

Hopefully bells of enlightenment are going off inside your head right now. "Oh! This tooth belonged to Homo antecessor, not Homo sapiens sapiens!" Are you still with me?

All of this to say, finds like this should not fighten Christians in the least. Instead, we should look at them carefully to see if the research is valid. Then, once/if it has been responsibly confirmed, we should embrace it as another piece of the puzzle as we learn about God's good creation. Apparently, about a million years ago, God created an advanced primate in Europe that scientists have classified as Homo antecessor and this tooth is another artifact confirming this species' presence during this time period. Nothing more. Nothing scary.

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