Neandertal Takes a One-Eighty

by Dr. Hugh Ross

A spectacular advance in biochemical technology has been applied to Neandertal, the fossil find hailed as proof of human evolution from primates, and the findings point in the opposite direction. Analysis of Neandertal DNA leads researchers to conclude that homo sapiens, the human race, is neither descended from nor related to the Neandertal species.1

As one of the great ironies of the century, the DNA sample used in this breakthrough study was recovered from the very first Neandertal skeleton ever found. That skeleton was dug from a limestone quarry in Neandertal, Germany, in 1856, and its impact on the tide of history has been enormous. Will Neandertal now help us turn the tide back, or has that tide taken over the course of our thinking? Time will tell.

The search for a Neandertal DNA sample has been long (about 30 years long!) and difficult. When an organism dies, its DNA degrades. Water, oxygen, and microbes break it up. Typically, all the DNA is destroyed in less than 50,000 years. Aware of the difficulties they faced, a team of German and American paleoanthropologists decided to focus their efforts on a particular locale, the mitochondria (specialized structures in the cell, outside the nucleus). While only two copies of each DNA molecule reside in a cell’s nucleus, the mitochondria, outside the cell’s nucleus, hold between 500 and 1000 copies of each of their DNA molecules.

The research team located about 50 copies of the Neandertal skeleton’s mitochondrial DNA, in strings of about 100 nucleotide pairs each. Painstakingly matching pieces of the strands with other pieces, they ended up with a DNA fragment about 379 nucleotide pairs long. That fragment came from a part of the DNA that is not subject to "recombination" in the reproduction process. It is a portion passed from mother to daughter without a contribution from the father. Therefore, it can be used as a valid indicator of natural process (mutational) change.

When the Neandertal DNA fragment was compared with a DNA sequence of 986 nucleotide pairs from living humans of diverse ethnic backgrounds, the difference was enormous—an average of 26 nucleotide links in the DNA chain differed completely. Modern humans differed from one another in an average of eight links of the chain, and those differences were independent of the 26 observed for the Neandertal fossil. The researchers conclusion: Neandertals made no contribution to humanity’s gene pool.

Corroborating evidence comes from analysis of mitochondrial DNA from an ancient humans. A British team analyzed a portion of mitochondrial DNA in a 10,000 year old human skeleton found near Cheddar, England.2 Only one nucleotide base pair differed from the DNA of modern Europeans.

The conclusion also harmonizes with findings reported by American anthropologists Jeffrey Schwartz and Ian Tattersall.3, 4 Their examination of more than a dozen Neandertal skulls revealed nasal bones and sinus cavities many times larger than modern humans’ and no tear ducts. Anatomical differences this great, they concluded, eliminate Neandertal from the line of human ancestry.

We have much more to learn from mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA research. The field is advancing rapidly. I believe it will yield an ever-increasing body of evidence for the special creation of humankind. Already it indicates a relatively recent origin for humans—less than 150,000 years, based on mitichondrial DNA,5 and less than 49,000 years, based on Y-chromosome analysis.6 RTB will keep you posted.


Facts & Faith, Third Quarter 1997 Issue (Vol. 11, No. 3) p.4

  1. Patricia Kahn and Ann Gibbons, "DNA From an Extinct Human," Science, 277 (1997), pp. 176-178.

  2. Kahn and Gibbons, p. 178.

  3. Hugh Ross, "No Tears for Neanderthals," Facts & Faith, v. 10, n. 4 (1996), p. 11.

  4. Jeffrey A Schwartz and Ian Tattersall, "Significance of Some Previously Unaccompanied Apomorphies in the Nasal Region of Homoneandertalenses," Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, 93 (1996), pp. 10852-10854.

  5. Kahn and Gibbons, p. 177.

  6. I. Simon Whitfield, John E. Sulston, and Peter N. Goodfellow, "Sequence Variation of the Human Y-Chromosome," Nature, 378 (1995), pp. 379-380.

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