Can Neanderthal Noses Sniff Out the Secret Paths of Human Evolution?

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Abstract

Were Neanderthals our cousins, our ancestors, or just our fellow human travelers in the post-Babel world? A new study of Neanderthal noses concludes that they were our cousins and that they possessed a constellation of unique anatomical features that would equip them to adapt to breathing cold air as effectively as today’s Arctic populations. Their anatomy demonstrates a well-designed variation in the human family that likely developed among some people who dispersed from the Tower of Babel.

Neanderthal noses—at least the bony portions that remain for us to study—are the “entry portal” to unlock the Neanderthal “place in human ancestry.”1 That’s the conclusion reached by a multidisciplinary team of evolutionary scientists featured in a special issue of The Anatomical Record covering “The Vertebrate Nose: Evolution, Structure, and Function.”

The newly discovered distinctive and well-integrated functional components of the Neanderthal nasal complex, the researchers contend, demonstrate Neanderthals were more likely the cousins of modern humans than primitive ancestors. Their research effectively dispels the notion that Neanderthals died out because their noses were unable to warm the cold Ice Age air they breathed. Actually, what they’ve discovered is that Neanderthal noses were well-designed variants of our own!

“As the nose is the entry portal of the upper respiratory system so too may the Neanderthal nose be an entry portal to understanding their evolutionary trajectory,”5 write the authors, assuming an evolutionary worldview and only wishing to trace its path. Despite this flaw in reasoning, they confine their comparisons to humans and thus uncover the nasal diversity among Homo.

Moreover, their research effectively dispels the notion that Neanderthals died out because their noses were unable to warm the cold Ice Age air they breathed. Their analysis of the Neanderthal nose reveals not the Neanderthal place in human evolution but its good design, highly suitable for coping with climate extremes.

Neanderthal Nose

The nose warms and humidifies cold air, and anatomical variations optimize this function in some people. In this Neanderthal nose, the nasal angle at the top of the piriform aperture is fairly wide compared to the nasal angle in modern cold-adapted native human populations. Compensating for this in the Neanderthal nose are the medial projections, bony rims that narrow the nasal opening. The right medial projection is marked with a triangle. Continuing as ridges far up into the nasal cavity, these would have increased the surface area over which Neanderthal noses could condition cold air during inspiration and increased air turbulence during exhalation, optimizing reclamation of water vapor. Image from The Anatomical Record.2

Comparing Noses and Drawing Conclusions

Modern X-ray imaging has revealed the previously hidden details in the nose and sinuses. A team led by SUNY Downstate anatomist Samuel Márquez compared measurements, angles, and three-dimensional architectural details of three Neanderthal skulls6 to 48 modern human skulls from populations native to various climates.7 They found the Neanderthal nasal complex—which has in the past just been compared to Inuit and other cold-adapted modern humans—actually resembles the nasal complex of tropical peoples but has some unique adaptations for the cold.8

Along with comparative anatomists and paleoanthropologists, Márquez’s team included an otolaryngologist, commonly known as an “ear-nose-and-throat” doctor, Dr. William Lawson. ScienceDaily describes Dr. Lawson’s conclusions like this:

Co-author William Lawson, MD, DDS, vice-chair and the Eugen Grabscheid research professor of otolaryngology and director of the Paleorhinology Laboratory of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, notes that the external nasal aperture of the Neanderthals approximates some modern human populations but that their midfacial prognathism (protrusion of the midface) is startlingly different. That difference is one of a number of Neanderthal nasal traits suggesting an evolutionary development distinct from that of modern humans. Dr. Lawson's conclusion is predicated upon nearly four decades of clinical practice, in which he has seen over 7,000 patients representing a rich diversity of human nasal anatomy.9

Dr. Lawson’s expert opinion that the Neanderthal nasal complex differs somewhat from those in modern humans rests on the observable “rich diversity” in modern human anatomy and the analysis of the Neanderthal skulls. However, the evolutionary conclusion attributed to him is not based on observational science or his medical expertise but on his evolutionary worldview that assumes humans evolved from primate ancestors and simply assumes Neanderthals were part of the ongoing evolutionary process.

The Nose Where You Live: A Natural HVAC

What does the shape of a nose have to do with where people live or how they presumably evolved? In twisting circuitous air passages the nose humidifies the air we breathe and warms (or cools) it to something closer to body temperature. This reduces the shock of dry, cold (or hot) air on the lungs and vascular system. It even recaptures much of the moisture in exhaled air before it exits. God invented this personal air conditioning system about 6,000 years before HVACs were thought of.

Though we don’t know why they became extinct, the presumption that their noses couldn’t warm and humidify the cold air efficiently enough to survive should be taken off the table of possibilities.

The soft tissues and bony anatomy of the nose vary with geography. Variations that increase internal surface area or force the air through narrow passages can optimize air modification. The authors write, “The marked diversity of nasal shape among living human populations has long been considered a consequence of adaptation to a wide range of climatic conditions for optimizing respiratory heat and moisture exchange in the nasal mucosa.”10

Nasal air conditioning is clearly important, but the modern human nose is still a rich field of study in which much remains to be discovered. It is not clear how all the variations function or how they came about. The authors write, “Any disturbances to the soft or hard tissue anatomy of the region will have severe adverse effects on normal respiratory functioning and, ultimately, on survival.”11 Patients suffering from “empty nose syndrome” (an unfortunate unintended result of aggressive sinus surgery) or atrophic rhinitis—though uncomfortable due in part to their loss of ability to warm and humidify air—do not typically die of their condition. However, their quality of life suffers, and we can only speculate how they would fare in a chronically cold world without modern shelter.

Nitric Oxide in Neanderthal Nose

This is a reconstruction of the Neanderthal nasal passage and maxillary sinus, produced by Dr. Samuel Márquez for his study published in The Anatomical Record. As indicated in green and pink, sinus mucosa would have produced nitric oxide gas. Nitric oxide helps keep the blood vessels in the lungs from reacting adversely to the cold. This reconstruction also shows how medial bony projections in the nasal passage were positioned to “confront the plume of cold air for warming before it is mixed with nitric oxide gas, but causing turbulence during expiration for heat reclamation.”3 Image from The Anatomical Record.4

“What does the Neanderthal Nose Know?”12

One aspect of the Neanderthal nose is counterintuitive to the way nose experts have heretofore thought the nose of cold-adapted people should be shaped. The nasal angle at the top of the bony opening is typically narrowed in modern people native to cold regions. Paradoxically, this piriform aperture is quite wide in Neanderthals, though they lived in cold regions during the Ice Age.

This wide nasal angle—classically considered a “primitive” feature by evolutionists—may have simply been an anatomical necessity matching the Neanderthal’s distinctive face. But Márquez’s team concluded it likely caused no problems in dealing with the cold. Any disadvantages would have been offset by other features. For instance, the Neanderthal nasal complex has prominent bony ridges projecting backward from the rim of the piriform aperture. These bony ridges narrow the openings through which air passes, just like the narrower piriform aperture does in modern cold-climate populations. Continuing well back into the nasal cavity, each bony ridge would have increased turbulence and added to the surface area over which air must pass. This Neanderthal nasal nuance would have optimized opportunities for incoming air to be humidified and warmed before reaching the lungs and for exhaled air to be stripped of some of the heat and valuable water vapor it carries away from the body. Most experts contend that this bony medial projection is not found in modern humans, but in Neanderthal adults it is a consistent feature.13

Super Sinuses

Neanderthals also have larger maxillary sinuses than modern humans. Though some have speculated that this may have simply made their larger skulls lighter, the physiologic usefulness of big sinuses may be far more important than that. Scientists now know that the mucosa lining our sinuses produces, among other things, nitric oxide. Nitric oxide (NO) acts as an airborne “messenger between the upper and lower airways and may selectively reverse hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction without causing systemic vasodilation,” the authors explain:

This type of respiratory physiology would have been ideal for the physiologic demands imposed by the hyperactive behavioral regime of Neanderthals. . . . As NO production has been related to energy levels, it is possible that the potentially higher gas production in Neanderthals similarly reflects extensive respiratory activity, facilitating greater cardiopulmonary efficiency.14

In other words, Neanderthals’ big sinuses may have secreted more of the chemical regulator that helps people cope with cold temperatures without putting excessive strain on their hearts. The authors conclude:

These observations may shed some light into Neanderthal sinonasal and respiratory physiology. The relatively large sinuses of Neanderthals may have permitted greater quantities of nitric oxide (NO) production within the endothelial cells that line the paranasal sinus mucosa than are typically produced by modern Europeans and Alaskans.15

Is this conclusion substantiated by observations in living people? Indeed it is. The sinuses of high altitude populations of people produce more than twice the nitric oxide produced by those of low altitude natives. The authors explain:

The possible physiologic impact of the observed high NO concentration levels in the high altitude group may be to offset the ambient hypoxia by enhancing the uptake of oxygen from the lungs, with improved delivery to peripheral tissues. Such a physiologic mechanism may have benefited Neanderthals while actively hunting in seasonally cold habitats.16

That Neanderthal noses were not identical to those of modern humans should come as no surprise. After all, the rest of their faces differed too. Even their inner ears varied slightly but consistently. But the constellation of features discoverable from their nasal bones demonstrate not a poorly adapted evolutionary product that doomed them to extinction but a well-designed constellation of features that worked well for them in the context of the other unique familiar anatomical traits. The authors reasonably conclude that these features, differing as they do from modern people, may be the product of genetic drift—one of the phenomena that happens among smaller isolated populations of people. Though evolutionists have long argued about how to fit Neanderthals in human evolutionary history, these nasal revelations are exactly what we would expect in light of biblical history in which Neanderthals are understood to be fully human, the descendants of people dispersed from the Tower of Babel.

Where Neanderthals Fit

Since Neanderthals were first discovered in Germany’s Neander Valley in 1856 anthropologists have debated how they fit into human history. Discoveries have since shown that Neanderthals possessed tools, musical instruments, and fire, and that they buried their dead. Eventually, geneticists showed that Neanderthals and modern humans not only shared common ancestry but that they even interbred. Thus, scientific research confirms what was easy enough to predict within a biblical creation model, a biological model that acknowledges all humans are descendants of Adam and Eve.

That groups of people who dispersed from the Tower of Babel after the global Flood—initially isolated and limited in size—developed distinctive anatomical variations is no surprise. Answers in Genesis molecular geneticist Dr. Georgia Purdom explains how such distinctions can develop in small populations:

One possibility is that environmental pressures, such as the Ice Age, “selected” for or against traits within the range of human genetic diversity. (In other words, those that had a particular combination of characteristics survived in that environment, and others did not.) This may have led to the specific set of features found in Neanderthal people. Many animals following the Flood and during the Ice Age experienced an explosion of variations that allowed them to live and function well in new environments. This could also have been true for humans.

Other possibilities include genetic effects seen mainly in small populations. Small populations would have been typical for a period of time following the breakup of the human population at Babel, as people were separated based on language. The groups that left Babel would have begun with only a few reproducing individuals and not interbred initially with other groups.

A phenomenon known as genetic drift can cause certain genetic variations to become “fixed.” If the population is small, everyone with certain variations can die, without passing them down, and the survivors pass down just one variation to future generations. If no people are moving in or out of the population, characteristics like the pronounced brow ridge or the robust body form in Neanderthals can become dominant.

Another possible impact of the Babel breakup is the founder effect. The founders of each group leaving Babel might simply have differed from one another. Certain traits in one group might have been unknown among the founders of any other group. Those traits would then be unique to each group. Rather than being fixed by genetic drift, the Neanderthal’s pronounced brow ridge or robust body form may have been found among the founders of only one group after they left Babel. Those people may have migrated intentionally to places where they were most comfortable (similar to human behavior today).17

The Neanderthal nose is not an entry portal revealing a primitive evolutionary past but rather a well-designed anatomical variation in a particular variety of human beings. “What does the Neanderthal nose know?” the authors ask. Neanderthal people were likely able to freely breathe in the cooling air of the post-Flood Ice Age without unduly dropping their body temperature or becoming dehydrated. Though we don’t know why they became extinct,18 the presumption that their noses couldn’t warm and humidify the cold air efficiently enough to survive should be taken off the table of possibilities. Neanderthals were just one more variety of human beings that developed in the wake of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, and the good design of their nasal complex is a testimony to the wisdom of the Creator God who designed us all.

Further Reading

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Footnotes

  1. Samuel Márquez et al., “The Nasal Complex of Neanderthals: An Entry Portal to their Place in Human Ancestry,” The Anatomical Record 297 (2014): 2121–2137, doi:10.1002/ar.23040.

  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. In addition, the researchers studied casts of four skulls belonging to Homo heidelbergensis, which they chose to regard as Neanderthal as that taxon is in dispute and poorly defined among evolutionary anthropologists. (You can read more about the latter dispute in “Sima de los Huesos Reveals Surprising Genetic Connections,” “Dispute Over Largest Group of Human Fossils,” and “Ancient Footprints Place Humans in England Early in the Ice Age.”)

  7. The mixed gender sample of modern human adults and “subadults” came from Alaska, Northern Europe, East Africa, West Africa, and South Africa.

  8. Márquez et al., “The Nasal Complex of Neanderthals.”
  9. SUNY Downstate Medical Center, “Were Neanderthals a Sub-Species of Modern Humans? New Research Says No,” ScienceDaily, November 18, 2014, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141118141606.htm.

  10. Márquez et al., “The Nasal Complex of Neanderthals.”
  11. Ibid.
  12. This is the subheading used to mark the “conclusions” section in the study by Márquez et al.

  13. Márquez et al., “The Nasal Complex of Neanderthals.”
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Taken from “How Are Cavemen Different?” by Dr. Georgia Purdom.

  18. Dr. Georgia Purdom, in “How Are Cavemen Different?” explains several possibilities:

    As time passed, the different groups would have migrated, as humans have always done. People who had the traits of modern humans possibly interbred, at times, with the other groups, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans. Yet there seems to have been a sudden loss, or a dilution, of the characteristics possessed by those other groups. The genetic makeup of modern humans became dominant.

    Inbreeding can have disastrous effects on small populations by amplifying defective genes. Maybe this is why Neanderthals and Denisovans eventually became extinct. We don’t know. Why this happened is still a mystery.

    What is not a mystery is that so-called cavemen, including Neanderthals and Denisovans, were fully human. They were among the descendants of the people scattered at the Tower of Babel—made in God’s image to bring Him glory.

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