Science in Christian Perspective



HOMO HABILIS:ImplicationsFor 
The Creationist


From: JASA 17 (September 1965): 74-78, 86.

With the discovery of the latest fossil hominnid in East Africa~ the antiquity of man, as estimated by the discoverer, Dr. Louis S. B. Leakey, jumps from the previously accepted hundreds of thousands of years to over a million and a half. Homo habilis is pre-Australopithecus and pre-Zinjanthropus, but more like Homo sapiens in several respects, and was a tool-maker. So far, the results of the potassium-argon dating of the site look reliable.

Should creationists accept this discovery, repudiate it, or shelve it? What are its implications for the Bible-believer? Conservative theologians of the past as well as of the present tell us that the mere antiquity of man is not theologically relevant. What, then, are the relevant considerations?

This newest find does not meet with uniform acceptance in the world of science as yet. More will have to be known concerning its morphology, its culture, and its dating before a consensus can be achieved.


In view of our title it may be instructive at the outset to note how frequently we are asked about the relation of this or that fossil man to Adam, somewhat as though there were even a possibility of gaining some certain understanding of exactly where and when man originated. Elwyn L. Simons, palaeontologist at Yale, wrote that

In order to report with confidence the exact regions of origin of the human species and of earliest cultural items, we would need 100 times the archaeological and palaeontological evidence that we now have, with absolute dates for all sites. 1

We cannot pinpoint these for you but we can report some ideas and recent developments in the continuing search for early man.

In 1960, Dr. L.S.B. Leakey, famed palaeontologist and discoverer of the Australopithecine "man-ape," Zinjanthropus boisei, discovered the greater part of a juvenile mandible, and parts of the skull at a level below that of the Zinjanthropus deposit in the now famous Olduvai Gorge, Tanganyika. The skull capacity proved to be larger than the Australopithecine skulls, and anatomical details indicated a much more humanlike form. Because of the lack of sufficient material, Leakey simply reported the find as a pre-Zinjanthropus, "a very remote and truly primitive ancestor of Homo!"

Subsequently other discoveries served to corroborate the find of 1960, indicating that this non-Australopithecine lived earlier, contemporary with, as well as later than Zinjanthropus; and Zinjanthropus had been dated at 1,750,000 years old! Thus a fossil form of significantly human proportions, accompanied by evidence of culture in the form of tools is reported at an antiquity unprecedented, even by evolutionary standards.

if those who take the Bible seriously are not to react in mere denunciation and sarcasm to such an announcement, how are they to accommodate such extreme developments into the frame of reference of orthodox creationism? How are we to interpret such ancient man-like remains in terms of a Christian philosophy of human origins? The only strictly Biblical arguments used in opposition to such reports involve the genealogical material from the Old Testament.

Theologians have been discussing the chronological implications of the Genesis genealogies for a very long time. Opinions as to how they should be interpreted have varied from those who insist that they cannot be used to figure the antiquities of biblical events at all,

1. "Some Fallacies in the Study of Hominid Phylogeny" Science 6 Sept., 1963, pp. 879-889.

*James 0. Buswell. III, is Associate Editor of the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation. Presented at the 19th annual convention of the American Scientific Affiliation, John Brown University, Siloam Springs, Arkansas, August 27, 1964.

**Wilson's article should be read, or re-read as a preliminary to the present one. He treats the genealogies as well as the potassium-argon method of dating in slightly more detail, providing a valuable supplement to the content and point of view of the present article.

prior to the times of Abraham, to those who are just as convinced that they can, and indeed do, constitute "biblical chronology."

From some of the most orthodox, conservative scholars, however, have come repeatedly, statements of the former position to the effect that the genealogies were not intended for chronological or time-measuring devices in the language and culture in which they were originally given. Donald R. Wilson, (Christianity To day, September 14, 1962) in connection with the reports of Leakey's Zinjanthropus finds, has ably discussed the contribution of William Henry Green and the conclusion of B. B. Warfield on the question of the genealogies. Green pointed out that "the notion of basing a chronological computation upon these genealogies is a fundamental mistake. It is putting them to a purpose that they were not designed to subserve, and to which from the method of their construction they are not adapted.'2

More recently, Professor Samuel Schultz, chairman of the Division of Bible and Philosophy of Wheaton College, has expressed the opinion that "Genealogical records in the Scriptures were not designed to be used as time tables . . . No statement is made anywhere in Scripture that affords us a conclusive and reasonable basis to calculate the time that elapsed prior to Abraham."3

Thus the attempts at such reconstructions of ancient chronology from the genealogies by those who have interpreted them in literalistic, modern genealogical terms would seem to have been spurious. In 1871 Charles Hodge noted that

The extreme uncertainty attending all attempts to determine the chronology of the Bible is sufficiently evinced by the fact that one hundred and eighty different calculations have been made by Jewish and Christian authors, of the length of the period between Adam and Christ.4

At the same time, Hodge reported that the longest of these was 6984 years, and the shortest 3483.

As applied to the question of the antiquity of man, the same conservative scholarship has fearlessly followed the implications of its conclusions on the genealogies. Thus Charles Hodge, although thinking in terms of merely "eight or ten thousand years," admitted that,

The Scriptures do not teach us how long men have existed on the earth. Their tables of genealogy were intended to prove that Christ was the son of David and of the Seed of Abraham, and not how many years had elapsed between the creation and the advent.5

Later, regarding the pertinent periods of Biblical record, Green concluded that the Mosaic records do not fix and were not intended to fix the precise date either of the Flood or of the Creation of the World.5

B. B. Warfield in his 1911 study of "The Antiquity and the Unity of the Human Race" gave much latitude for the times of ancient man. He wrote that,

... for aught we know instead of twenty generations and some two thousand years measuring the Interval between the creation and the birth of Abraham, two hundred genera tions and something like twenty thousand years, or even two thousand generations and something like two hundred thousand years may have intervened. In a word, the scriptural data leave us wholly without guidance in estimating time which elapsed between the creation of the world and the deluge, and between the deluge and the call of Abraham. So far as the Scripture assertions are concerned, we may suppose any length of time to have intervened between these events which may otherwise appear reasonable.7

As Wilson suggests, we may suppose that such opinions were written, not to reconcile evidence of fossil man with the Biblical record, but rather in an attempt to achieve a correct understanding of what the Bible teaches. Certainly Hodge, Green, and Warfield were not particularly exercised over current evidences of ancient man. Each felt he could accommodate any current scientific evidence within the framework of his philosophy of scriptural interpretation. And it is their philosophy of scriptural interpretation which remains today, characteristic of evangelical orthodoxy, and is no more jeopardized by the scientific evidence of our day than it was in theirs.

It has been felt necessary to preface this report in this way because of the fact that, despite wide knowledge of this point of view in Christian circles, the only serious objections to the acceptance of reports of fossil man are, almost without exception, based primarily upon an assumption that their antiquity alone is enough to deny Creation and jeopardize the entire system of Christian orthodoxy. Such assumptions, we submit, stem from a misunderstanding of either the function of the genealogies, or the nature of prehistory, or both. We are told, for example, by Whitcomb and Morris, that "To stretch the genealogy of Genesis 2 to cover a period of over 100,000 years is to do violence to the chronological framework of all subsequent Bible history and prophecy."8 Using the number of years since the dawn of recorded history as a criterion for the number of years of man's sojourn before that time, on some principle of balance or symmetry, we are told that "The incongruity of insisting upon 100,000 years between Noah and Abraham while granting that the entire history of redemption from Abraham to the eternal state may be only four or five thousand years, becomes obvious."9 The incongruity is obvious, but only from the point of view of a premise based upon a specified criterion which has no intrinsic biblical or historical basis. Furthermore, who knows how far off "the eternal state" may be? On the same premise, the harnessing of power for the technological advance of civilization should have progressed at a uniform rate throughout the ages. Instead, however, we have the late explosion of technological advance which allowed one historian to observe that George Washington would have been more at home in the court of Hammurabi than he would be in any world capital today. No principles of congruity can be applied in the one case any more than in the other.

Another form of objection by creationists to the reports of ancient fossil men is the belief that the further back in time man is pushed, the stronger are the implications of an evolutionary origin. So far, there is no continuous sequence of fossil remains, nor intermediate forms connecting with the scattered representatives of early non-human primates to warrant such a belief. The position of human derivation from pre-human forms, as far as the fossil data is concerned, is dependent upon evolutionary presuppositions, be they theistic or naturalistic.


One of the more fascinating things about the most recently published finds in East Africa is precisely contrary to the usual evolutionary presupposition, particularly in view of its alleged age. That is the fact, referred to above, that they indicate a more "man-like" form than their Zinjanthropus and other Australopithecine contemporaries. The juvenile mandible and parts of the skull found in 1960, which are catalogued as Olduvai Hominid No. 7, are supplemented and their interpretation corroborated by a re-examination of several other finds at or near the same locations. They are: some teeth and cranial fragments (Olduvai Hominid No. 6), some teeth and jaw fragments (Olduvai Hominid No. 4, the oldest hominid remains so far discovered at the famous Olduvai Gorge), some hand and foot bones and a clavicle (01duvai Hominid No. 8), and two important finds in 1963. These were Olduvai Hominid No. 13, a good part of a cranium, a mandible, and other fragments and small parts from a "late adolescent" indicated from the eruption of teeth. Leakey pointed out that "This specimen exhibits all the special morphological characters" which could be seen in the 1960 find. The other discovery in 1963 was a badly crushed specimen whose importance was that the fore-part of the skull and brow ridge area was recovered.

The characteristics which show these finds in such marked contrast with the Australopithecines as reported by Leakey, et. al.,10 are (a) a cranial capacity of 675 to 680 c.c. as compared with the largest Australopithecine cranial capacity of under 600 c.c.; (b) smaller jaws, within the range of Homo sapiens; (c) incisors generally larger than both Australopithecines and Homo sapiens; (d) curvature of the skull vault within the range of variation of Homo sapiens, and unlike the Australopithecines; (e) gross skull size. Even the juvenile which could expect about a 5% increase in brain growth, according to Leakey, has skull parts "far larger than those of the Zinjanthropus adult" and "almost identical in size" to the corresponding parts of Pithecanthropus; (f) The clavicle resembles very closely that of modern man; (g) hand bones are more robust, but resemble those of modern man; and (h) foot bones resemble modern man in several respects with "well marked longitudinal and transverse arches."

The most important index of "human" status available in a prehistoric site is the archaeological indication of culture. The cultural remains in this case constitute the main reason for the name which was suggested by South African palaeontologist Raymond Dart, and given to the type-Homo habilis. The specific name is taken from the Latin, meaning "able, handy, mentally skillful, vigorous." Some of the cultural indications were stone tools of a small, crude core variety with 4 or 5 flakes broken off. Their conformation in comparison with later primitive tools indicates that they were probably used for skinning, for cutting meat, or other similar uses. They were probably used in what is referred to as "precision grip" (thumb and fingers) rather than in a "power grip."

With the cultural and anatomical data combined, came an important reappraisal of Zinjanthropus boiesi. Dr. Leakey describes it as follows:

When the skull of Australopithecus (Zinianthropus) boiset was found on a living floor at F.L.K. #I, no remains of any other type of hominid were known from the early part of the Olduvai sequence. It seemed reasonable, therefore, to assume that this skull represented the makers of the 01dowan culture. The subsequent discovery of remains of Homo habilis in association with the 01dowan culture at three other sites has considerably altered the position. While It is possible that Zinlanthropus and Homo habilis both made stone tools, it is probable that the latter was the more advanced toolmaker and that the Zinjanthropus skull represents an intruder (or a victim) on a Homo habilis living site.

The recent discovery of a rough circle of loosely piled stones on the living floor at site D.K.#I, in the lower part of Bed I, is noteworthy. This site is geologically contemporary with M.K. #1, less than one mile distant, where remains of Homo habilis have been found. It seems that the early hominids of this period were capable of making rough shelters or windbreaks, and it is likely that Homo habilis may have been responsible.11

In addition to the reassignment of the cultural remains, an important reinterpretation of Zinjanthropus in relation to its significance in human phylogeny has been anounced by Leakey. In 1959 at the University of Chicago celebration of the centennial of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, Leakey claimed that,

Zinjanthropus, In spite of being classified In the subfamily Australopithecinae, already exhibits specializations which foreshadow Homo, and therefore it seems reasonable to accept the genus Zinjanthropus as being in the direct evolutionary line leading to Homo. 12

He also suggested that,

. . . this genus may well be directly ancestral to modern man, while the other two genera in the same subfamily may be regarded as divergent branches of the same general stock, which exhibit specializations in directions away from Homo and which eventually became extinct. 13

By July, 1961, however, at a symposium on African Ecology and Human Evolution, Leakey was already suggesting a change, namely, that Zinjanthropus, as an Australopithecine, was "a hominid which is headed for extinction" while the juvenile, not yet called Homo habilis "seems to be much more closely related to the stock which eventually gave rise to Homo."14

Thus changes in man's family tree are seen to be quite frankly dependent upon an open-minded scientific attitude that is not afraid to admit a previous erroneous position. In this case, it is to Leakey's credit that he, himself, corrected his earlier, premature differentiation of Zinjanthropus from the Australopithecines. In the cases of the Piltdown hoax, and of the reinterpretation of the anatomical reconstruction and posture of Neanderthal, it was necessary for men of a later generation to correct the errors of their predecessors.


Correspondence with other creationist anthropologists in direct solicitation for opinion about Homo habilis for this paper have brought forth references to Leakey himself in terms of "amazing," "fantastic," and "basic skepticism." But all anthropologists have heard expression of this kind in conversations on the subject.

More important, however, the responses indicate a general lack of alarm at the increased antiquity. Claude Stipe of Bethel College writes, "If there is evidence for Homo before Java and Peking (Flithecanthropus), this would not be surprising to me." Another experienced anthropologist writes, "The possibility that God may have specially created man looking like Homo habilis who later evolved into modern man does not trouble me."

Another element in the responses involves the question, What is man? Ralph G. Ellenberger of Nyack Missionary College writes that this find "certainly makes it necessary to make Adam much more ancient if Homo habilis is truly demonstrated to be a toolmaker ... Is it possible that any non-man was capable of the level of abstraction and conceptualization necessary for tool-making? At the present, I feel that toolmaking is indeed a human art; and that if habilis was a tool-maker, then by definition, he must have been human. This seems reasonable unless we develop some theory of a pre-man tool-maker."

Another anthropologist, with slightly broadened criteria, writes, "Within my personal frame of reference, men are culture-building beings with algebraic mentality and eternal souls, and what they look like doesn't matter very much."

The type of reservations which must be held at this time are well stated by Stipe: "It seems to me that at this stage, one cannot draw any very important conclusions. It is necessary to determine more accurately the dating, if possible, and to have a more complete examination by a number of experts." Ellenberger expands the second point with a sound prediction: "Obviously any sensible person must make some reservation of judgment at this time, pending some genuine printed crossfire between Leakey and . . . his opponents. So far the discovery is pretty recent to raise much controversy in the journals, though I would assume considerable controversy is forthcoming."

Already the status of habilis is disputed. Dr. Bernard Campbell of Cambridge University is reported in the press to hold that it should be classed with the latest and largest Australopithecine form, Telanthropus capensis. Leakey, however, counters by the suggestion that Telanthropus is nothing but a late example of Homo habilis.

Dr. J. T. Robinson of the Transvaal Museum of Pretoria (currently teaching at the University of Wisconsin),15 probably the foremost living authority on the South African Australopithecines, holds that Zinjanthropus is quite esurely a specimen of the older genus of Australopithecines, Paranthropus, while Homo habilis constitutes a transition from the later genus, Australopithecus (which it closely resembles in many features) to the still later Homo erectus, "full-fledged" man in common parlance. (See fig. 1) Dr. Leakey, in comparing habilis rather consistently with only the Zinjan, thropus representative of Australopithecines would seem to have ignored the rather marked distinctions between the two genera, Australopithe4cus and Paranthropus. Robinson's interpretation has not as yet been published, so that its acceptance by others in the field remains to be seen.

Reaction to the geological dating was not long in coming either. Those which have been expressed to date are mostly concerned with critical appraisals of the potassium-argon method by which the Zinlanthropus date of 1,750,000 years was established. So far no dates have been reported on specific habilis sites, but their obvious geological relationship to Zinianthropus allows the interpretation of the antiquity of the one to serve for the other.

First, Leakey, with J. F. Evernden and G. H. Curtis, two University of California geologists, published the date of 1,750,000 for Bed 1.16 This was the report that was then published by the National Geographic Magazine.17                                                             

Family:                             Pongidae     Orangutan

Family:                             Hominidae
Subfamily:                    Australopithecinae  
         genus:                      Paranthropus (including Zinjanthropus*)
         genus:                     Australopithecus
    Subfamily:                     Homininae 
erectus       (Pithecanthropus, Sinanthropus) 


* after Robinson

Many anthropologists were skeptical. Some believed Leakey was too eager and the dates too early. Others doubted the applicability of the postassium-argon method to finds less than two million years old.

Published reactions came in the form of one by G.H.R. VonKoenigswald, W. Gentner, and H. J. Lippolt.18 Their arguments were largely reflected in a criticism of the age determination by William L. Straus, Jr. (a physical anthropologist) and Charles B. Hunt (geographer-geologist) both of Johns Hopkins.19

Both of these articles specified that they were not critical of the precision of the determinations of the potassium-argon ratios in the minerals at Olduval Gorge, the error in precision being less than 10%. Rather they criticized the accuracy in the measurements due to the nature of the sample itself. Different materials had been tested in some of the seven sites in the layers of tuff chosen for analysis. Also there seemed to be an unconformity between the Basalt layer dates and the upper and lower portions of Bed I. Straus and Hunt concluded: "Because some of the dates are inconsistent some must be inaccurate." They decided that until accurate measurements are learned, "the indicated ages must be taken cum grano salis."20

In June, 1962, Evernden and Curtis gave a clarification of their method, answering the criticisms of VonKoenigswald et al at a conference at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, published the following year (1963) by the National Academy of Science. They explained satisfactorily the absence of any basement contamination; asserted the lack of retention of pre-eruption argon in any appreciable amounts in tuffs and flows, particularly at Olduvai, on the basis of the concordance of the data on the seven tuffs dated; and, with other clarifications concluded:

Therefore, we feel that there are no grounds for rejecting the Bed I dates and that they must be accepted as valid estimates of the age of Zinlanthropus.21

Discussion revealed that there was no evidence of digging in, as in burials, or of slumping.

Finally, Richard L. Hay of the University of California reported more significant corrections and re-appraisals of methodology as well as results by Curtis and Evernden themselves, including modification of dating procedures which resulted in the correction of one Basalt date previously out of line, and the re-assignment of one specimen from Bed I to Bed 11 which cleared up another slight unconformity.22

Altogether, the potassium-argon evidence looks reliable. We note that there have not been any published objections to the general order of magnitude of these finds. Yet there will have to be many more samples of the habilis and Zinjanthropus beds at Olduvai Gorge before anything like a textbook account of human prehistory in that part of the world can be written. Meanwhile, as Ellenberger suggests, it will not be until more interpretations of the present and increasing data have been exposed to sufficient "printed crossfire" that a concensus can be achieved.


1. Homo Habilis is certainly a "man", taxonomically speaking, and is certainly older than any previously discovered "man." The archaeological remains do not yet spell out an unequivocally human culture complex, although for many, the mere existence of tools is sufficient to indicate the fully human status of their makers. Cultural indications are the only reasonable archaeological clue to the human state, and we believe would be indicative of a fully human spiritual nature as well. We believe that tools, (or the conceptual thought necessary to design and make them with any pattern or tradition), language, and all other cultural behavior (as opposed to mere genetically determined behavior), as well as man's spiritual nature, his soul, are co-terminous and have their theological definition in the image of God in man.

2. Orthodox Creationists need not withdraw from full acceptance of the latest evidence alleged to be the earliest known representatives of mankind, by reason of their antiquity alone. Nothing in Scripture would theologically preclude the assigning of the most ancient men as progeny of the Biblical Adam.


1. Simons, 1963, pp. 879-889. 

2. Green, 1890, p. 297.

3. Schultz, quoted in Buswell M, 1956, p. 18. 

4. Hodge, 1871, Vol. IT, p. 41.

5. Ibid.

6. Green, op. cit., p. 303.

7. Warfield, B. B., 1911, 1962, Vol. 1, p. 325).

8. Whitcomb and Morris, 1961, p. 484. 

9. Ibid.

10. Leakey, Tobias, and Napier, 1964, p. 8; and Leakey, 1963, p. 456.

11. Leakey, Tobias, and Napier, 1964, p. 9. 

12. Leakey, 1960, p. 26.

13. Ibid., p. 28.

14. Leakey, 1963, p. 456.

15. This paragraph summarized from lectures by Dr. Robinson and Dr. Leakey at the University of Chicago, May 11, 1964, and April 8, 1964, respectively.

16. VonKoenigswald, Gentner and Lippolt, 1961. 

17. Leakey, 1961. 

18. VonKoenigswald, Gentner and Lippolt, 1961.

19. Straus and Hunt, 1962. 20. Ibid, p. 295. 21. Evernden and Curtis, 1963, p. 126. 22. Hay, 1963. 
p. 247. (Quoted in Buswell, Jr.,


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