There has been recent media fanfare about the sequencing of parts of Neandertal mitochondrial DNA.1 Some researchers claim that it gives powerful support to the theory that all humanity descended from an “African Eve” about 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, and that Neanderthals were an evolutionary dead end.

Some researchers claim that the genetic differences indicate the Neanderthals were a different species than the early humans who swept them aside in Europe and western Asia—although they appear to have split from a common ancestor 500,000 years ago (according to evolutionary dating methods).2

As always, we urge caution. In the last 12 months we have seen big media fanfare about the “feathered dinosaurs”, “176,000-year-old” Aboriginal remains, and especially “Mars life”. But the media never seem to give the same prominence to the refutation of these “evidence”, even by secular scientists. However, Creation magazine3 and of course the News section of the Answers in Genesis Website have dealt with all these issues as they arose. So let’s wait for more data.

At the moment, we should question whether the DNA found would have remained intact if it is old as claimed. DNA is quickly broken down by water and oxygen, so under favourable conditions, DNA might last tens of thousands of years at the most.4

With the Neandertal issue, the media have reported some criticisms, which are unfortunately obscured by the flashy headlines, and I give some examples below:

Critics of that theory say the argument will rage on, and they await the results of many more DNA tests.

“It is a brilliant, innovative piece of work. I just doubt that it can be faulted on technical grounds”, said Milford H. Wolpoff, professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. But Wolpoff also said that the researchers may have “jumped too soon to conclusions” where there are actually several different ways of interpreting the data. If early human populations were “very small and isolated from one another”, gradually each would accumulate “different losses [in mitochondrial DNA] until they all came to look really different from each other because of the drift. Of course their last common ancestor would appear to be very far in the past.”

Apart from the claimed dates, this is consistent with the Biblical model, where all people are descended from Noah’s three sons and their wives. These descendants” languages were confused at Babel, so people separated into small groups and migrated their own separate ways. Nothing in the new data rules out the possibility that Neandertals interbred with ordinary Homo sapiens, which would make them part of the same species.5

So-called Neandertal features are recognisable in some Europeans today. Also, many Neandertal skeletons show evidence of arthritis and rickets—this, rather than primitivity, explains the stooped stupid-looking posture that most people are familiar with. This is explained by noting that some of the groups from Babel would have lost a lot of their ancestors” technology, and been forced to live in caves. Such people may have been deprived of sunlight and nutrition. So they would have been prone to diseases such as arthritis and rickets. Neandertals are one such branch of Noah’s descendants.

So in one sense, they are a sidebranch when compared with humans alive today. This could explain why their DNA is so different from that of living people. But it should be stressed that Neandertals were still fully human, and descendants of Noah.6

The above shows that facts don’t speak for themselves; they must be interpreted in some framework. Evolutionists have their own framework “naturalism/uniformitarianism” into which they try to fit the data. Christians should use the creation/catastrophe (Flood)/confusion (of languages) framework.

Editor’s Note: after this preliminary report, Dr Marvin Lubenow wrote a detailed report, Recovery of Neandertal mtDNA: An Evaluation in CEN Technical Journal 12(1):87–98, 1998.

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Footnotes

  1. Mitochondria (singular mitochondrion) are the structures within cells that help produce energy. They have their own genes which are passed down the female line with only the occasional mutation. Back
  2. A group led by Svante Pääbo analysed one 379-unit sequence (from of a total of 16,500 base pairs in human mitochondrial DNA) from an upper arm bone from a Neandertal skeleton supposedly 30,000–100,000 years old. They found that it differed from living humans by 27 ± 2.2 substitutions; modern humans differ among themselves by only 8.0 ± 3.1. Their paper is M. Krings et al., Cell 90:19–30, 1997, cited in R. Ward and C. Stringer, “A molecular handle on the Neanderthals”, Nature 388(6639):225–226, 1997, and Roger Lewin, “Distant Cousins”, New Scientist 155(2091):5, 1997. Back
  3. See Creation magazine articles “Life from Mars? Separating fact from fiction” 19(1):18–20, December 1996; “Mars claims weaken further” 19(2):8, March 1997; “Kentucky Fried Dinosaur?” 19(2):6, March 1997; “No dino feathers after all”, 19(3):6, June 1997; “Down-under dating dilemma” 19(3):7, June 1997. Back
  4. T. Lindahl, “Instability and decay of the primary structure of DNA”, Nature 362(6422):709–715, 1993. S. Pääbo himself has found that DNA fragments a few hours after death into chains 100–200 units long, that water alone would completely break it down by 50,000 years, and that background radiation would eventually erase DNA information even without water and oxygen, “Ancient DNA”, Scientific American 269(5):60–66, 1993. Back
  5. R. Ward and C. Stringer, “A molecular handle on the Neanderthals”, Nature 388(6639):225–226. Back
  6. For a comprehensive creationist treatment of alleged human evolution, see Marvin Lubenow, Bones of Contention, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1992. Back