DNA Offers a Rendering of Neanderthal Face

on September 20, 2008

National Geographic News: “Photo in the News: DNA-Based Neanderthal Face Unveiled” She may seem a little rough around the edges, but Wilma, the National Geographic Society’s new Neanderthal re-creation, is fully human.

Created for October’s issue of National Geographic magazine, Wilma’s skeleton was formed from replicas of actual Neanderthal bones. The team of artists and scientists also used DNA analysis as a basis for Wilma; DNA evidence has indicated that at least some Neanderthals may have had red hair (as does Wilma), pale skin, and possibly freckles.

"Neanderthal's low-domed skull housed a brain with a volume slightly larger on average than our own today."

The National Geographic article [note: some pictures may be inappropriate for children] tells the gruesome story of Neanderthal remains that show clear signs of cannibal carve-up—and tours a variety of theories about how similar Neanderthals were to “modern” humans and why Neanderthals disappeared.

Several quotes are of interest to creationists:

Neanderthal's low-domed skull housed a brain with a volume slightly larger on average than our own today. And while their tools and weapons were more primitive than those of the modern humans who supplanted them in Europe [though see News to Note, August 30, 2008], they were no less sophisticated than the implements made by their modern human contemporaries living in Africa and the Middle East.
[. . .]
In 1979 archaeologists discovered a late Neanderthal skeleton at Saint-Césaire in southwestern France surrounded not with typical Mousterian implements, but with a surprisingly modern repertoire of tools. In 1996 [archaeologists] identified a Neanderthal bone in another French cave, near Arcy-sur-Cure, in a layer of sediment also containing ornamental objects previously associated only with modern humans, such as pierced animal teeth and ivory rings. . . . [M]ore recently, [archaeologists] analyzed hundreds of crayon-like blocks of manganese dioxide from a French cave[.]

Additionally, when reviewing the debate over whether or not Neanderthals and “modern” humans interbred, Stephen Hall reports:

The disagreement . . . is hardly the first time that two respected paleoanthropologists have looked at the same set of bones and come up with mutually contradictory interpretations. Pondering—and debating—the meaning of fossil anatomy will always play a role in understanding Neanderthals.

As for Wilma, her matted hair, dirty face, and “caveman” clothing obscure how similar to modern humans she clearly is. The fact that the differences are figuratively superficial—and, in some ways, advantageous to Neanderthals, such as the larger brain size—combined with their hunting prowess, tool-making, arts, and other signs of skill mean there is no reason to believe Neanderthals were not ordinary, modern humans. They were, no doubt, descendants of Noah (who lived around 2,300 BC) who populated Europe; conditions such as rickets may have augmented their skeletal differences with other human groups. But as we point out in item #7, such differences can clearly be accounted for within God’s creation of individual kinds—including humankind.

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