As a Christian homeschool father I have been bothered by how to teach my children about cavemen and Neanderthals (and the discovery of fire). How and where do they fit in with human history? Were they human at all? If I knew where to put them into history and how to speak about them then I could confidently teach my children. Any thoughts?Great question, Tim! I agree with you that this can be a tricky topic to discuss with kids, but I'm so glad that you're wanting to! In my non-expert opinion, books and movies have a tendency to over-humanize Neanderthals so it can be very confusing.
The way I have talked to my daughters about this since they were about 3 or 4 is to drill one simple distinction into their head: Adam and Eve were humans and all others were animals. Even young kids can get that - something either falls into category 1 or category 2. So whenever we would look at pictures in a book, I would ask them, Is that an animal or a human?
As they get older, you can begin to draw some additional distinctions. I usually do this by asking them questions and opening dialogue. For example, what does it mean to be a human? It means to be created in the image of God. Well, what does that mean? While the Bible doesn't specifically say what it is, we have some ideas. It seems to include higher intelligence, the ability to engage in abstract concepts and behaviors such as artistic and religious expression. That's not to say animals are dumb. Some are quite intelligent, such as apes, chimpanzees and whales. But I've never seen a whale appreciate a Van Gogh painting or do algebra (lots of silly examples can be given along these lines). There is something definitely different about humans. These are all examples of the kinds of dialogues I've had with my girls over the years.
Switching gears to a more scientific answer to your question, we can make a few summary statements.
- Neanderthals lived in Europe and the Middle East.
- Neanderthals are not the genetic ancestors to humans. In other words, they didn't give rise to humans. That's been fairly well established through genetic analysis. So forget the whole icon of evolution of human evolving in a step-wise fashion from lower species. The data doesn't say it happened that way.
- Neanderthals and humans appear to have existed simultaneously for a brief time. There is some evidence that inter-breeding may have taken place. Visit the RTB web site for info on that.
- It is unclear to what degree and how Neanderthals engaged in fire. Did they know how to create it? Or did they just exploit pre-existing fires? This is debated among experts. So when you see pictures like this, it's generally a good idea to make the point that this is an artist's rendition of the situation, but that there is some level of artistic embellishment that can go along with this.
- Although Neanderthals are frequently shown wearing clothes, again this is debated. It's not a slam dunk on whether that's been firmly established.