A newly released study published in Science magazine raises new questions about ancient life by concluding much of the DNA from Neanderthal specimens is “within the variation of present-day humans for many regions of the genome.”
The scientific team that came up with the result, published in a recent issue of Science, included dozens of members of the research community and was led by ancient-DNA expert Svante Paabo, who works at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
According to a report in Time magazine, the team reconstructed almost two-thirds of the Neanderthal genome – only some 10 years after the modern human genome first was mapped – by extracting DNA from bone fragments of samples found in the 1970s and 1980s in Croatia.
The resulting comparison of DNA to modern samples from around the globe found: “Neanderthals often share derived single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) alleles with present-day humans.”
The study’s authors found that the results argue against “the simplest version of an ‘out-of-Africa’ model for modern human origins” but did support the perspective that “the vast majority of genetic variants that exist at appreciable frequencies outside Africa came from Africa with the spread of anatomically modern human.”
David Menton, staff member with Answers in Genesis, told WND that part of the complication of the entire issue is that some scientists believe Neanderthal was a separate creature, while those who follow a biblical understanding of the earth and its residents likely perceive Neanderthal as one among many variations of what God created as “man.”
Menton, an expert on anatomy, is a member of the American Association of Anatomists. He was profiled in “American Men and Woman of Science,” named “Professor of the Year” in 1998 by the Washington University School of Medicine Class of 2000 and has been given the “Distinguished Service Teaching Award” from Washington University School of Medicine multiple times.
He said knowledge about Neanderthal is extensive.
Over the years, excavations have uncovered a sample of virtually every bone in the Neanderthal body. Researchers have documented Neanderthal burials were ritual, they made tools and jewelry and left footprints that look virtually human. They also used cosmetics and had what appeared to be wooden flutes, “with holes in positions to be playable,” Menton said.
He said there has been evidence they set broken bones, based on fractures that healed correctly, successfully survived amputation surgeries and otherwise reflected human characteristics.
“When I look at them I don’t see anything that falls outside of normal human variability,” he told WND.
He said among “modern” humans there also is a range of types of physical characteristics, including Eskimo, Nordic, Asian, Aboriginal – and contemporary researchers don’t cite those as separate species or sub-species.
Menton, whose Ph.D. in cell biology is from Brown University, said one of the study’s points was that Neanderthals had a stronger genetic relationship with Asians and Europeans than Africans.
But he said the essential conclusion is that whether Asian, African, Aboriginal or Neanderthal, the subject is human.
“What’s special in Neanderthals is there is a whole set of characteristics. Putting the whole set together, then you have something that is the ‘Neanderthal’ type,” he said. Among those characteristics, he said, are significant muscle development, indicating they led a fairly rugged life.
“One model for modern human origins suggests that all present-day humans trace all their ancestry back to a small African population that expanded and replaced archaic forms of humans without admixture. Our analysis of the Neanderthal genome may not be compatible with this view because Neanderthals are on average closer to individuals in Eurasia than to individuals in Africa. Furthermore, individuals in Eurasia today carry regions in their genome that are closely related to those in Neanderthals and distant from other present-day humans,” the study said.
“The data suggest that between 1 and 4 percent of the genomes of people in Eurasia are derived from Neanderthals,” the study said.
Yet calling Neanderthals a “sub-species” ignores the vast variety that exists in life, said Menton. For example, dogs range from the English bulldog to the shar-pei, yet they are all canus familiarus.
“Didn’t God create man? He didn’t call them homo sapiens,” noted Menton. “This scientific thing was added later.”
“The study generally shows we’re very similar to Neanderthals,” he said, except with smaller brains.
“In Neanderthal, compared to modern man, there was a larger cranial capacity, about 200 [cubic centimeters] larger,” he noted. “In modern man it’s normally 1,400-1,500 CCs. Neanderthal was 1,600-1,700.”
He said the relationships, too, with a closer link between Neanderthal and Asians or Europeans, could be explained by the dispersions of people after the biblical flood and Tower of Babel.
According to the study and its supporting materials, there was a point when early “modern” humans left Africa and comingled and mated with Neanderthals, based on the comparisons to the genomes of five living people, from France, China, Papua New Guinea, southern Africa and west Africa.
The simple fact that the DNA had been mixed surprised some. David Reich of Harvard told Time, “We came into the project extremely biased against the idea of gene flow.”
But the study found, “Neanderthals shared more genetic variants with present-day humans in Eurasia than with present-day humans in sub-Saharan Africa, suggesting that gene flow from Neanderthals into the ancestors of non-Africans occurred before the divergence of Eurasian groups from each other.”
The study concludes, “The analysis of the Neanderthal genome shows that they are likely to have had a role in the genetic ancestry of present-day humans outside of Africa, although this role was relatively minor given that only a few percent of the genomes of present-day people outside Africa are derived from Neanderthals. Our results also point to a number of genomic regions and genes as candidates for positive selection early in modern human history, for example, those involved in cognitive abilities and cranial morphology.”