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Meet the Denisovans

on January 8, 2011
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BBC News: “All Change: Theories of Human Ancestry Get an OverhaulNeanderthals, move aside; it’s time for us to meet your cousins, the “Denisovans.”

Genetic data gathered from a tooth and a portion of a pinky bone found in a Siberia's Denisova cave have confirmed the existence of a “new” group of humans related to Neanderthals and “modern” humans (though their genes are more similar to Neanderthals’). They have not been given an official scientific name, but have instead been nicknamed the “Denisovans.”

But the most interesting twist (from the evolutionary perspective) is that modern humans from New Guinea have Denisovan DNA. While an evolutionary perspective interprets this as meaning that Guineans’ ancestors “interbred” with Denisovans, a biblical perspective interprets this as simply meaning that the descendants of one of the people groups leaving Babel eventually settled in what is now New Guinea.

That is, rather than thinking of Denisovans—or even of Neanderthals—as a separate group of “less-than-humans,” we should merely think of them as a collection of our ancestors with certain genes that did not get passed on to us today as successfully as the genes from our other ancestors. This may have been because those humans grew more isolated from other humans and, as a result, their genetic diversity and fitness declined. But they were both just as (or even more intelligent than) modern humans. (As an aside, scientists recently learned that Neanderthals cooked and ate vegetables—but creationists shouldn’t be surprised.)

Writing for BBC News, Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, emphasizes that both Denisovans and Neanderthals belonged to our species, Homo sapiens.

Writing for BBC News, Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, emphasizes that both Denisovans and Neanderthals belonged to our species, Homo sapiens. (Indeed, given the original definition of species as referring to organisms that could interbreed successfully, treating them as separate species doesn’t make sense. However, that definition is no longer observed.) Finlayson writes:

Put together, this evidence shows us that humans formed an interwoven network of populations with varying degrees of gene flow between them. Some humans may have looked quite different from each other, revealing a combination of adaptation to local environments and genetic drift, but it does seem as though those differences were not large enough to prevent genetic interchange.

The Bible presents all humans as descendants of Adam and Eve, and distinguishes us from other animals as having been made in the image of God. After the Tower of Babel, mankind parted ways, and that parting set off a chain of genetic adaptation as humans spread across the globe, giving us the people groups we have today while others died out. But we all remain one race, and looking back in time, that includes both Neanderthals and, now, Denisovans.

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