The Neandertals: Our Worthy Ancestors

One hundred and fifty years have passed since the first Neandertal fossil individual was discovered in 1856 in the Neander Valley in Germany. Fossil remains of more than 490 Neandertal individuals have now been recovered. We should know them quite well. Not only do we have more fossils of them and more of their artifacts than of any other fossil group, but they also lived, allegedly, in the most recent times before modern humans. Yet to evolutionists, they are still mysterious, with many questions about them still unanswered.

The Neandertals are not mysterious, but rather incredibly intriguing.

To young-earth creationists, the Neandertals are not mysterious, but rather incredibly intriguing. We view the Neandertals as the fully human ancestors of some modern humans, probably some Europeans and western Asians, where the Neandertals lived. Hence, we creationists would refer to them as Homo sapiens sapiens, or as a sub-species of modern humans: Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Either way, we believe that they would be fully capable of reproducing with modern humans if they were living today. They were a post-Flood, Ice Age people, specializing in hunting the large, grazing animals that were abundant towards the end of the Ice Age and afterwards.

When the Neandertals were first discovered, they were considered to be a separate species, Homo neanderthalensis. Since reproductive capability is on the species level, the significance of the original designation was that they were considered different enough from modern humans so as to not be able to reproduce with us.

In the 1960s, new studies on the Neandertals properly revealed that their skeletal distinctions were not that significant and they were given sub-species status with modern humans, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. That situation persisted until it became possible to study DNA in fossil bones. Based on this fossil DNA research, paleoanthropologists now claim that the Neandertals were a species separate and distinct from modern humans.

My study, showing that the Neandertals were fully human, will be in two parts. Part 1 deals with the DNA evidence. The DNA studies and their conclusions have serious flaws. The fact that most paleoanthropologists believe that the Neandertals were a separate species is irrelevant. Most of them also believe that the Neandertals were able to share genes with modern humans. The biblical word “kind” refers to a group of organisms that have/had the ability to mate with one another. Hence, we speak of organisms reproducing “after their kind,” and of “mankind” or “humankind.” The scientific word “species” (not a synonym of the biblical word “kind”) uses interfertility as part of its definition, but also involves elements beyond the scope of this paper. If the Neandertals were able to share genes with modern humans, they qualify biblically as being fully human. Obviously, this matter is beyond proof since fossils cannot reproduce. However, the fact that most evolutionary palaeoanthropologists believe that the Neandertals were able to share genes with modern humans is certainly significant.

In Part 2 we deal with the rich and very positive archaeological evidence demonstrating that the Neandertals were fully human. Their incredible hunting prowess, their mortuary (burial) practice, the designation of specific spatial areas in their dwellings, their tool kits (which include bone tools), and many other items testify to their full humanity. The cultural inventory of the Neandertals exceeds that of the extinct Tasmanian Aboriginals or of the people of Tierra del Fuego (described by Darwin on his famous voyage). None would dare call these people less than fully human.

Part 1: The DNA Evidence

A turning point in DNA research was the discovery of techniques to identify and manipulate genetic material by using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This discovery was such a remarkable breakthrough in modern biotechnology that Kary B. Mullis shared the 1993 Nobel prize for chemistry for inventing the technique.

Before PCR, there was a shortage of genetic material for experiments. This material was extremely difficult to obtain because it was always embedded in a living cell. It was hard to get an intact molecule of natural DNA from any organism except from extremely simple viruses. The PCR technique enables researchers to make unlimited copies of any specific DNA sequence independent of the organism from which it came.

Because DNA, the genetic code, is such an incredibly complex molecule, when an organism dies its DNA breaks down rather rapidly. Eventually the strands of the molecule are so short that no information can be obtained from them. PCR, with its ability to replicate short strands of DNA, opened the door to the possibility of obtaining genetic information from fossil material, even though that material was degraded. Hence the successful recovery of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the Neandertal skeleton from the Neander Valley, Germany. This dramatic recovery was announced in the journal Cell on July 11, 1997.

Because that recovery revealed differences between Neandertal mtDNA and modern human mtDNA, evolutionists interpreted the results to mean that the Neandertal line separated from the line leading to modern humans about 600,000 years ago and that the Neandertals died out without passing on any mtDNA to modern humans. The implications are that the Neandertals did not evolve into modern humans and that they were a totally different species from modern humans.

In spite of the brilliance of recovering mtDNA from a Neandertal fossil, there are flaws in the basic assumption, in the methodology, and in the interpretation of the results of the recovery. We will cover just some of these matters briefly.

1. The mtDNA recovery is flawed in its basic assumptions. In dealing with this Neandertal specimen, the scientific team searched for mtDNA rather than for nuclear DNA. (Dr. Georgia Purdom of AiG–USA has written on other recent studies regarding nuclear DNA. Please see her findings at “The Trouble with Sequencing.”) There are only two copies of DNA in the nucleus of each cell, but there is an average of 750 copies of mtDNA in each cell. Thus, the possibility was greater that some of the Neandertal mtDNA might be preserved. Unlike nuclear DNA, evolutionists have assumed that mtDNA passes without change from a mother to her offspring. Since all changes in mtDNA are believed to result from mutations rather than from genetic recombination with the father, evolutionists believe that mtDNA is a more accurate record of evolutionary history. Furthermore, since mtDNA is unable to repair itself, mtDNA mutations occur at about ten times the rate of nuclear DNA, making it, they believe, a more precise record of time.

The crucial assumption in the practice of building evolutionary family trees on the basis of mtDNA is the belief that mtDNA is passed on only through the mother and hence all changes in the mtDNA are mutations upon which one can build a time-line of evolutionary history. This assumption has been shown by experimentation to be false by one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists, the late John Maynard Smith (Sussex University). It is reinforced by experiments by other biologists. Smith has expressed frustration that the evolutionary establishment has ignored these findings (see New Scientist, June 14, 2003, p. 50). The reason for this attitude toward the new evidence is that a huge body of literature has arisen dealing with evolutionary relationships based upon mtDNA. Since evolutionists believe that this gives them the “proof” for evolution that they have sought for 150 years, giving up this belief is like asking an addict to give up his habit. The older tests were not sensitive enough to reveal that some of the father’s mtDNA is also passed on. The newer tests, thanks to PCR, reveal that the father’s mtDNA is also passed on to the offspring, therefore invalidating all evolutionary trees and time-tables based upon mtDNA. Evolutionists have ignored the newer data.

2. The mtDNA recovery is flawed in the interpretation of the data. Based upon a difference of about 0.123% (see Discover, December 2006, p. 40) between the Neandertal and modern human mtDNA, the experimenters claim that the Neandertals and modern humans are two distinct species. That claim implies that we know how many mtDNA substitutions it would take to separate one species from another. Maryellen Ruvolo (Harvard University) points out that the genetic variation between the modern and Neandertal sequences is within the range of other single species of primates. She goes on to say: “ … there isn’t a yardstick for genetic difference upon which you can define a species” (Science, July 11, 1997, p. 177). In other words, we do not know how many mtDNA substitutions it would take between Neandertals and modern humans to make fertility impossible. Species distinctions are based on mating compatibility, not on the number of mtDNA differences. Hence, the claim that the Neandertals are a separate species has no factual basis and could only have been a subjective decision.

It is significant that one of the members of the research team was the world-class paleoanthropologist Christopher Stringer (Natural History Museum, London), who is one of the leading advocates of the “Out of Africa” model of human evolution. A major tenet of that model is that the Neandertals and modern humans are separate species. It seems to be an illustration of the logical fallacy of interpreting the evidence in a certain way in order to support a preconceived position. (The crucial reason for interpreting the data this way is to avoid the latent racism that exists in the concept of human evolution. However, the details of this matter go beyond the scope of his article. See Bones of Contention, pp. 137–166.)

Some contamination from modern DNA is impossible to avoid.

3. The mtDNA recovery is flawed in its methodology. Flaw #1: The ability to study genetic material with the help of PCR is an amazing success story. However, there is one serious problem. In analyzing ancient DNA (or mtDNA) there is always the serious problem of contamination from modern DNA. This contamination could come from the hundreds who have handled this particular Neandertal fossil since its discovery in 1856, from laboratory personnel, from laboratory equipment, and even from the heating and cooling system in the laboratory. Even a single cell of modern human contamination would have its DNA amplified blindly and preferentially by the PCR because of its superior state of preservation over the older Neandertal DNA. As DNA authority Tomas Lindahl puts it: the PCR technique is “notoriously contamination-sensitive” (Nature, October 21, 1993, p. 700). During the recovery, transportation, and study of any fossil, many humans would normally handle it. Yet, even when every precaution is taken to cleanse a fossil of contaminating modern human DNA, the problem is so serious that some contamination from modern DNA is impossible to avoid.

If, for instance, one is using PCR to recover dinosaur DNA in a dinosaur fossil, some contaminating human DNA will show up. Since one does not expect to find human DNA in a dinosaur, it is very logical to assume that all human DNA that is found in the dinosaur DNA recovery is from human contamination.

However, the closer the target DNA is (in this case Neandertal mtDNA) to modern human mtDNA, the more difficult the problem of discrimination becomes. In other words, it is much easier to recognize modern human DNA contamination in ancient non-human specimens than in ancient human specimens. The closer ancient human DNA sequences are to modern ones, the harder it is to tell if they are truly ancient or if they are the result of modern human contamination. The fossil evidence shows that the Neandertals were closely related to anatomically modern humans. Hence, it would be normal to expect that their DNA would be quite similar also. It is in this area of seeking to discriminate between (1) genuine ancient Neandertal DNA and (2) modern human DNA contamination that I saw a serious problem as I studied the methodology used by the authors of the Cell article.

The Cell article reveals some rather strange assumptions. In the PCR amplifications, the researchers obtained both (1) modern human mtDNA, which they assumed, without proof, to be entirely contamination from modern humans, and (2) mtDNA that was a bit different from modern human mtDNA, which they assumed, without proof, to be the only true ancient Neandertal mtDNA. They then used specific primers that would amplify only what they believed to be the true ancient Neandertal mtDNA and that would not amplify, that is, suppress, the mtDNA that they believed to be modern human contamination. Since it is absolutely impossible to know for sure whether the mtDNA they suppressed was truly contamination or actually a legitimate part of the ancient Neandertal mtDNA, their skewed methodology guaranteed that their results would show that the Neandertals were some genetic distance from modern humans. And without knowing how much genetic distance was necessary to establish the Neandertals as a separate species, the Cell researchers arbitrarily declared the Neandertals to be just that—a separate species.

Since I follow these matters very closely, I have been amazed that no one has commented upon what seems to be an obvious flaw in the methodology (except for a tiny item in Scientific American). Noting that the results of the mtDNA recovery favor the “Out of Africa” theory, they explain, as I have, how the deck has been stacked:

But some anthropologists complain that to ensure that the sequences truly come from Neandertals and not modern contaminants, molecular biologists typically accept as valid only those sequences that lie outside of the modern human range. This requirement thereby stacks the deck against Neandertals that might have DNA like ours, which is what those advocating the multiregional evolution theory expect to see (Scientific American, August 2003, p. 24).

4. The mtDNA recovery is flawed in its methodology. Flaw #2: Repeatability is central to science. It is basic to scientific methodology that any valid experiment must be repeatable under independent conditions. The researchers in the Cell article claim that their work had been successfully repeated and verified in a laboratory at The Pennsylvania State University. However, a group of Australian scientists claim that such was not the case. They state that “ … independent sequence results were not achieved … until primers, based on the Neandertal sequence from the first laboratory, were used … .” They emphasize that this does not constitute an independent replication (Science, June 1, 2001, p. 1656).

5. Other mtDNA recoveries do not support the Cell journal conclusions. Since the initial mtDNA recovery from the 1856 Neandertal specimen, there have been a number of other recoveries from fossil humans that seem to indicate that human mtDNA has nothing to do with species distinctions. This includes:

  • Two anatomically modern fossil individuals, Cro-Magnon types, from Italy, had mtDNA very similar to modern humans living today. (New Scientist, May 17, 2003, p. 14.)
  • One anatomically modern fossil individual from Australia, Mungo Man 3, had mtDNA very different from modern humans living today. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 98(2), January 16, 2001, pp. 537–542.)
  • Three Neandertal (robust morphology) recoveries showing mtDNA somewhat different from modern humans living today. (Cell 90, July 11, 1997, pp. 19–30.)
  • Ten Australian fossil individuals having robust morphology had mtDNA very similar to modern humans living today. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 98(2), January 16, 2001, pp. 537–542.)

If we assume that these were genuine mtDNA recoveries, the only legitimate conclusion one can make is that mtDNA is not an indicator of human morphology (shape), nor is it an indicator of species distinctions.

6. Species distinctions are normally formed to help define statements about reproductive continuity or discontinuity. Thus we would expect that different species designations would reflect different interpretations of gene flow (reproductivity) between Neandertals and modern humans. However, a study of various paleoanthropologists’ work reveals a lack of consistency in this area. Species definitions are generally ambiguous. While there is spirited debate as to which species designation should be given to the Neandertals, there is very little debate or information concerning what these species designations actually mean.

For instance, C. Loring Brace (University of Michigan) believes that gene flow took place between the Neandertals and modern humans, and Ian Tattersall (American Museum of Natural History, New York) believes that no gene flow took place. Thus it seems natural that Brace believes that they represent the same species while Tattersall believes that they represent different species.

However, G. Brauer and Fred H. Smith (Loyola University, Chicago) have similar views regarding gene flow between Neandertals and modern humans. Yet, they favor different species designations.

Even more confusing is that Christopher Stringer (Natural History Museum, London) is a prime advocate of the “Out of Africa” model of human evolution, while Milford Wolpoff (University of Michigan) is the leading advocate of the Multiregional Continuity model. Consistency would dictate that Stringer should believe in no genetic mixing between the Neandertals and modern humans, while Wolpoff should believe in a lot of mixing. However, they both agree that some genetic mixing took place between the Neandertals and modern humans. Yet Stringer believes that they are separate species whereas Wolpoff believes that they belong to the same species.

The fact that most paleoanthropologists believe that the Neandertals were a separate species and that most of them also believe that the Neandertals were able to share genes with modern humans represents a basic inconsistency in the interpretation of the human fossil and genetic evidence. The biblical teaching that humans were created in the image of God and reproduce “after their kind” fits well with the fossil record and with the idea that Neandertals and modern humans are members of the same biblical “kind.” (see Bones of Contention, pp. 178–179.)

Answers in Depth

2006 Volume 1


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