April 29, 2019 | Jerry Bergman

Neanderthals Were Just Another Ethnic Group of Real People

Neanderthals: Just Another Ethnic Group

by Jerry Bergman, PhD

Yet another new article on Neanderthals supports the growing scientific consensus that they are just another group of human beings like you and me. Nonetheless, remnants of the old and now disproved evolutionary view keep hanging around. A new article in the May 2019 issue of the leading magazine The Smithsonian does a marvelous job covering this topic.[1] In short, the article, which includes reprints of cartoons maligning our Neanderthal relatives, opined: “Revolutionary discoveries in archaeology show that the species long maligned as knuckle-dragging brutes deserve a new place in the human story.”

This topic has special meaning for me. Knowing that several colleagues of mine at the college where I taught for 31 years had Neanderthal DNA, I had mine analyzed by 23 and Me and found I am 51.6 percent Finnish-Swedish, which I already knew. I also found I have 360 Neanderthal variants which is more than 96 percent of the enormous 5 million-person database 23 and Me used as a comparison.

In my case, Neanderthal ancestry accounts for about four percent of my overall DNA analyzed. The only larger percent, besides Finnish-Swedish, was British and German. One does not think of Neanderthal as related to blond, blue-eyed Scandinavians, but from what we know about Neanderthals they were well-adapted to the cold, so when the post-Flood Ice Age swept over Europe, the Neanderthals no doubt moved north up into Scandinavian lands where my relatives lived.

New Research on Neanderthal Art

Deep within a cave in southern Spain, researchers have been searching for the ancient markings of the people they believe inhabited the caves there, namely the Neanderthals. The art is beneath layers of calcium carbonate. In one of three sites in Spain, cave explorers, or spelunkers, found designs consisting of hazy circles drawn with red ocher. Separated by hundreds of miles, the caves house handiwork—vivid artwork patterns (spheres, ladders or hand stencils). Using drills and surgical scalpels, the cavers grind and scrape the minerals that dripping groundwater deposited on top of the artwork for centuries. At each spot, “to avoid damaging the paintings,” a few milligrams of veneer are carefully removed without touching the final coat of calcite overlaying the ocher.

The results have begun to change scientists’ understanding of the so-called prehistoric artistic creations. The findings are yet more evidence that the world’s first artists must have been Neanderthals, people once believed to be “stocky, stooped figures, preternaturally low-browed, who became extinct as sapiens inherited the earth.”[2] University of Barcelona Professor Zilhão, opined, “the paintings have turned out to be the oldest known art in Europe, and, with current knowledge, the oldest in the world.[3]

This is only one more find revolutionizing our view of Neanderthals. The old story began in the summer of 1856, “when quarrymen in Germany’s Neander Valley dug up part of a fossilized skull with a receding forehead.” Researchers have been arguing “about the position of this group of early people in the human family tree ever since,” speculating “they apparently thrived in Europe and Western Asia from about 400,000 to 40,000 B.C.”[4]

A more modern depiction shows Neanderthals as strong, intelligent and culturally astute. What’s the difference? image by Mauro Cutrona.

False Evolutionary Ideas Slowly Overcome by Science

Unfortunately, soon after Darwin published his book that overturned the creation worldview, Homo neanderthalensis

got a bad rap as lamebrained brutes who huddled in cold caves while gnawing at slabs of slain mammoth. Nature’s down-and-outs were judged to be too dimwitted for moral or theistic conceptions, probably devoid of language and behaviorally inferior to their modern human contemporaries.[5]

These now-discredited opinions were consequences of preconceived ideas about human evolution. Evolutionists needed missing links, and so placed these unusual bones into their “march of progress” between apes and men. If researchers would have gone where the scientific facts led them, a very different picture would have been drawn. A new body of research has emerged, transforming our image of Neanderthals as fully human as much as any ethnic group. In the Smithsonian article, Franz Lidz describes the transformed image:

Through advances in archaeology, dating, genetics, biological anthropology and many related disciplines we now know that Neanderthals not only had bigger brains than sapiens, but also walked upright and had a greater lung capacity. These ice age Eurasians were skilled toolmakers and big-game hunters who lived in large social groups, built shelters, traded jewelry, wore clothing, ate plants and cooked them, and made sticky pitch to secure their spear points by heating birch bark. Evidence is mounting that Neanderthals had a complex language and even, given the care with which they buried their dead, some form of spirituality. And as the cave art in Spain demonstrates, these early settlers had the chutzpah to enter an unwelcoming underground environment, using fire to light the way.[6]

Now this sounds more like my relatives! Finns tend to do well in running on the track partly because of their large lung capacity. That may be a coincidence, or it might be a relic of Neanderthal ancestry, given humans’ well-known adaptability to different environments. Unfortunately, old ideas based on evolutionary presumptions have for decades resulted in “squabbles over the intelligence and taxonomic status of these archaic humans” that have

have gotten so bitter and so intense that some researchers refer to them as the Neanderthal Wars. Over the years battle lines have been drawn over everything from the shape of Neanderthals’ noses and the depth of their trachea to the extent to which they interbred with modern humans. In the past, the combatants have been at each other’s throats over authorship of the cave art, which had been hampered by lack of precise dating—often sapiens couldn’t be ruled out as the real artists.[7]

The latest rumpus centers on whether or not the abstract patterns qualify as symbolic expression, which would be indicative of cognitive sophistication. Dirk Hoffmann, a lead author of the cave art study, noted the one of the main evidence of the conclusion of Neanderthal humanity is evidence of the

emergence of symbolic material culture [which] represents a fundamental threshold in the evolution of humankind… the debate over whether the cave art qualifies as symbolic expression “touches deeply on a concern that goes far beyond academic rivalries. It confronts the issue of how special we, as modern humans,” are.  Zilhão has been the Neanderthals’ loudest and most persistent advocate. At 62, he’s more or less the de facto leader of the movement to rehabilitate a vanished people.[8]

Stay tuned. Another major problem is dating the Neanderthal bones and fragments.

The Problem of Dating

If Neanderthals lived from 400,000 to 40,000 years ago as claimed, does this mean my 360 Neanderthal variants have managed to survive intact that long? DNA deteriorates very rapidly due to several causes, including background radiation from cosmic rays and the radiation that seeps up from the ground as radon gas, a byproduct of uranium-238 decay. Radon in turn decays by the emission of alpha particles to polonium, bismuth, and lead in successive steps, most of them also radioactive.

Other sources of radiation include exposure to medical diagnostic and therapeutic procedures such as X-rays and CT scans, nuclear weapons production and testing, accidents such as at Chernobyl in 1986, and occupational exposure.[9] This is why the mutation load increases by about 100 new mutations for each generation. Mutations are constantly damaging genes which, fortunately, are repaired successfully 99.99 percent of the time by repair systems in body cells. The 100 or so new mutations per generation are a result of the 0.01 percent that are not repaired. In dead bodies, however, DNA damage is not repaired. Consequently, damage to DNA accumulates rapidly in cadavers and fossils.

The half-life of DNA (the point at which fully half the DNA molecule backbone bonds are broken) is 521 years. Professor Morten E. Allentoft, Director of the Ancient DNA Laboratory, after extensive study, concluded that after 521 years DNA would be useless for comparisons or sequencing. I am unable to fathom sufficient DNA would remain for DNA analysis after 40,000 years—over 76 half-lives.[10] Specifically, Allentoft’s lab found, by analyzing

mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from 158 radiocarbon-dated bones of the extinct New Zealand moa, we confirm empirically a long-hypothesized exponential decay relationship. The average DNA half-life within this geographically constrained fossil assemblage was estimated to be 521 years for a 242 bp mtDNA sequence, corresponding to a per nucleotide fragmentation rate (k) of 5.50 x 10– 6 per year.[11]

Furthermore, the 400, 000 to 40,000-year range estimate is a guesstimate, based partly on rocks and the surrounding environment. Early-1990s claims of million-year-old DNA recovered from fossils, Allentoft documented, are now widely regarded as modern contaminants. As anyone who has done sequencing of DNA is aware, contamination is a major problem.[12] This problem has been recognized for over 25 years by Lindahl, who observed that DNA, the carrier of genetic information, is not chemically stable outside a living cell.

Hydrolysis, oxidation and non-enzymatic methylation of DNA occur at significant rates both in vivo and in vitro, but an organism fights the decay until it dies. Then, the spontaneous decay of DNA sets limits for the recovery of DNA fragments from fossils.[13] The only way to reduce this problem is to work in a level-5 clean room, as one who sequenced the mitochondrial and nuclear genomes of the Neanderthal, knows.[14] The fact is, “the kinetics of long-term post-mortem DNA decay is still poorly understood.”[15]

In teaching forensics, I recall courtroom debates in my textbook about the quality of DNA of a woman we know died in 1947. After just 70 years, the woman’s DNA had become far too fragmented to make any valid conclusions, the court argued. The ability to sequence and reconstruct ancient DNA is improving and becoming more sophisticated,[16] but 40,000 years is an awfully long time, let alone 400,000 years.

1960-era diagrams put Neanderthals beneath “modern” humans

References

[1] Lidz, Franz. 2019. “What Do We Really Know About Neanderthals? The Smithsonian Magazine. 50(2): 24-35,  86, May 2019.

[2] Lidz, 2019., p. 26.

[3] Lidz, 2019. P. 26.

[4] Lidz, 2019, p. 28.

[5] Lidz, 2019, p. 28.

[6] Lidz, 2019, p. 28.

[7] Lidz, 2019, p. 29.

[8] Lidz, 2019, p. 29.

[9] Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the effects of atomic radiation. UN Publication.

[10] Allentoft, Morten E. 2012. The half-life of DNA in bone: Measuring decay kinetics in 158 dated fossils. Proceedings of the Royal Society Biology, 279(1748): 4724–4733.

[11] Allentoft, 2012, p. 4724.

[12] Allentoft, 2012, p. 4724.

[13] Lindahl, Tomas. 1993. Instability and decay of the primary structure of DNA. Nature, 252(6422):709-715. April 22.

[14] Pääbo, Svante. 2014. Neanderthal Man. New York, NY: Basic Books.

[15] Allentoft, 2012, p. 4724.

[16] Herrmann, Bernd and Susanne Hummel (Editors). 1994. Ancient DNA: Recovery and Analysis of Genetic Material from Paleontological, Archaeological, Museum, Medical, and Forensic Specimens. New York, NY: Springer Publishing.


Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology at several colleges and universities including for over 40 years at Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored, are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.

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Comments

  • John15 says:

    My Dear Dr. Bergman,
    I enjoy your articles thoroughly on this website. This one was especially interesting. I had never heard of the ‘half-life’ of DNA before (of course it must have one!). This prompted me into a little spreadsheet analysis on the half-life you supplied. I have learned (please correct me) that 9 cycles is considered the maximum lifetime of a radioisotope, there being too little remaining for practical detection. If this is also true for DNA, after only 1,040 years, only 0.2% would remain. If H. Neanderthalensis’ genome was approximate in length to our own (a given seeing they were simply a variety of human), then after that time 6 million base pairs would remain, but would run the gamut from contiguous to fully disparate (About 500 spaces between b/p). This certainly puts the kaibash on even the minimum evo time estimate, as even YEC time spans would challenge the existence of ‘raw’ Neander DNA. Thoughts?

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