Ethiopian ‘earliest humans’ find

A severe blow to the beliefs of Hugh Ross and similar ‘progressive creationist’ compromise views.

by and Jonathan Sarfati, CMI-Australia

12 June 2003

The media are abuzz with the discovery of ‘the earliest humans’ or ‘our earliest ancestors’ in Ethiopia—dated at 160,000 years ago.  Actually, many lay people will see this as confusing.  Haven’t humans been claimed to have been found at earlier ‘datings’?  And haven’t ‘man’s ancestors’ been assigned dates up to millions of years old? 

The difference is that this latest discovery concerns modern-type humans—Homo sapiens, originally found by Dr Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, in 1997 near Herto, a village 230 km northeast of Addis Ababa. It was on the cover of the prestigious journal Nature (12 June 2003),and this issue contains articles about this discovery by leading evolutionary paleoanthropologists.  White and colleagues reported on the fossils,1 and another paper reported on dates, derived via the latest radioisotope methods, and on the evidence for fully human behaviour.2

Another leading evolutionary paleoanthropologist, Dr Chris Stringer, of the Human Origins Group at The Natural History Museum, London, commented on the article in depth.3  He claimed that this was further support for the ‘out of Africa’ model of human origins and against the rival evolutionary multi-regional model (see No Bones About Eve for a description of both models).

CMI has consistently shown the fallacies and assumptions in radioisotope dating.  For example, we have demonstrated obvious inconsistencies between supposedly infallible methods, such as wood ‘dated’ at thousands of years old via the radiocarbon method, while encased by lava which was ‘dated’ by the potassium-argon method as tens of millions of years old (see Q&A: Radiometric dating).   So in a biblical framework of history, this Ethiopian find is just one more example of fossil human bones, probably post-Babel and thus post-Flood, and thus nothing to get excited about.  See also Q&A: Anthropology.

However, the new find will (or at least should) be received with dismay by the ‘progressive (long-age) creationist’ camp, best typified by Dr Hugh Ross of the ministry Reasons to Believe (see Q&A:Genesis—why is it wrong to add billions of years to the Bible?).  To explain why, one needs to understand a little about where they are coming from. 

  • They claim to be ‘conservative evangelicals who trust the Bible.’  However,
  • They openly urge trust in (and compromise with) man’s fallible dating methods.  Hence,
  • They are forced to reinterpret the plain teachings of the Bible to try to fit a ‘literal Genesis’ into ‘millions of years.’  This puts death, cancer, suffering, and bloodshed well before any Fall/Curse, a major gospel-related problem.

Also (this is where it’s relevant to this find), they hold to a separate creation of Adam, and claim to take the genealogies literally. However they try to fit as many thousands of years as they can into them, lately up to 60,000 years, although the grammar indicates that they are meant to be treated as tight chronologies.  But this means they are forced into some very tortuous positions regarding ‘fossil men.’

For instance, despite evidence of humanity from culture, artefacts, etc in the case of such fossils as Neandertals, Homo erectus, and even some fossils classified as (‘archaic’) Homo sapiens, they cannot concede that these are human, because otherwise their date for ‘Adam’ suffers.  Many of these fossils are dated at well over 100,000 years, which would be stretching the chronologies beyond all belief. So they have been forced to postulate that these were non-human, ‘spiritless humanoids’ who just happened to use fire, tools, paint on cave walls, and so on.  Along with the dinosaurs and other creatures who, in this view, were never seen by man, God created these ‘humanoids,’ who did their cave paintings and so on and then He let them become extinct long before Adam’s sin.

However, now that these rather well preserved and anatomically clear-cut modern humans (in fact, with larger skulls than the average modern human) have been found in Ethiopia, this line of argument has a huge dilemma. The assigned date of 160,000 years is regarded as ‘very secure’ using a form of radiometric dating involving argon isotopes called the 40Ar/39Ar method.

So the Ross camp must either throw out the very methods they have been telling Christians to embrace as ‘solid science’ all along, or try to claim that just because they look anatomically modern they cannot be descendants of Adam.

Also, these specimens had undoubtedly human cultural features, such as mortuary practices, butchery of large mammals, and what evolutionists describe as ‘an interesting combination of Middle Stone Age and late Acheulean technology.[2]3 So it is even less plausible for Ross and his followers to deny that they are descendants of Adam. Or else they must blur the distinction between humans and animals, which undercuts their own arguments as well.

Thus their denial of the humanness of these recent discoveries would be ‘special pleading’ of the worst kind—because the only reason for assigning a pre-Adamite non-human status to them would be the dating, not the actual evidence of the skulls themselves or their practices.  (One would certainly hope that they would not try to tell us that now Adam’s creation, and hence the Genesis genealogies, should be stretched by another 100,000 years to 160,000 years ago!)

Perhaps even worse for this type of compromise view is the fact that the Ethiopian skeletal remains are not totally dissociated anatomically from ‘earlier’ type human bones, i.e. despite being clearly Homo sapiens, they show some features reminiscent of ‘archaic human anatomy. Hence the suggestion that they be given the fuller name Homo sapiens idàltu, indicating that they are a subspecies (i.e. subgroup) of our species. This means that not only are they clearly modern-type humans, they indicate a genetic connection with the types of skulls that Rossists have been trying to sideline as being not in the human family at all. (This includes the Neandertals, despite strong evidence from fossils of hybrids showing that Neandertals interbred with anatomically modern Homo sapiens.4)

The conclusion seems clear; both the ‘archaic’ type specimens and these Ethiopian ‘sapiens’ skulls are obviously and distinctively part of the human family, descended from Adam. The uncritical acceptance of ‘dating’ is the problem, and has been all along.

If only all Christians would unite behind apologetics and Bible-science activities that stood firmly on the authority of the Word of God and its clear implications for the age of fossils and dating methods. Evangelism would be much easier, and the whole arena of creationist science would likely be much further advanced, with more progress in providing even more answers than the many that there are at present. ‘Let God be true, and every man a liar’ (Romans 3:4). 


  1. White, T. et al., Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia, Nature 423(6941):742–747, 12 June 2003; see abstract.
  • Clark, D. et al., Stratigraphic, chronological and behavioural contexts of Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia, Nature423(6941):747–752, 12 June 2003; see abstract.
  • Stringer, C., Human evolution: Out of Ethiopia, Nature423(6941):692–695, 12 June 2003; see online article.
  • Wong, K., Who were the Neandertals?, Scientific American Special Edition 13(2):28–37, 2003.