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Scientists report new findings in study of Neanderthals

December 7, 2006

To those who become squimish during discussions of evolution and religion, I do not intend to endorse or promote here any particular theory of evolution. What follow are my thoughts on recent reports from scientists who have been studying Neanderthal remains.

In the grand drama that is evolutionary theory and its remainders, scientists have continually puzzled over the possible relation between Neanderthals, named after the Neander River in Germany where their remains were first discovered, and modern humans. Archaeologists have pointed to related human activities between the two: skilled hunting, building, irrigation and burying the dead. However, the marked distinctions between the skeletal structures between Neanderthals and modern humans has suggested that, while perhaps related, the two are distinct lines diverging from a hypothetical common ancestor that dates back anywhere from 700,000 to 300,000 years ago.

Gene sequencing on Neanderthal remains has been underway for some time now, and scientists have recently made some of their findings public. Two separate teams have spearheaded the research, one led by Edwin Rubin of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the other by Svante Paabo of the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Their findings, published in the November 16 issue of Science and in the November 17 issue of Nature respectively, purport that the genomes of Neanderthals and modern humans are more than 99.5% identical, differing by roughly 3 million bases. In comparison, the genomes of chimpanzees and humans differ by anywhere from 30 to 50 million gene pair basis.

A common theory proposed by many anthropologists and biologists asserts that Neanderthals and modern humans interbreeded for a long period time, perhaps even as recently as 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. These new studies by Rubin and Paabo now suggest the contrary. There is no evidence that there was any interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals, which suggests that the two lines never crossed after their hypothetical divergence.

In fact, recent research by Paul Mellars of Cambridge University using carbon-14 dating could indicate that there was absolutely no overlap between the presence of Neanderthals, who lived in Europe and Western Asia, and modern humans, who likely came from Africa and/or Mesopotamia, in the same local. In other words, there is new evidence suggesting that Neanderthals and modern humans never encountered one another. Such an suggestion would necessitate a severe revision in the conventional Africa-only theory and mutliple origins theory of human evolution. John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, backs such an idea. Much of his research can be found at his blog.

Anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, who has been studying Neanderthal fossils for decades, suggets that Neanderthals link far better to evolutionary models than modern humans. In an interview with LiveScience, Trinkaus remarked:

“What people tend to do is draw a line from our ancestors straight to ourselves, and any group that doesn’t seem to fit on that line is divergent, distinct, unusual, strange. But in terms of evolution of our family tree, the genus Homo, we’re the outliers and the Neanderthals are more toward the core.”

In other words, modern humans are beginning to appear not as the end result of a linear progression of evolution, but as an aberration, a true anomoly of nature. When compared to species that are posited as common ancestors between Neanderthals and modern humans, Trinkaus observed that modern humans have twice the amount of unique characteristics than Neanderthals, showing that Neanderthals are far more similar to other hominoids and primates than modern humans. Trinkaus comments:

“In the broader sweep of human evolution, the more unusual group is not Neanderthals, whom we tend to look at as strange, weird and unusual, but it’s us, modern humans.”

Trinkaus published his findings in the August 2006 issue of Current Anthropology. For good summaries of the genome and anthropological research reported above, click here and here.

For proponents of Intelligent Design theory, this may be encouraging news. Modern humans, if they are indeed products of evolution, would have evolved with a degree of rapidity and in a fashion of unpredictability that is unmatched by other primates and by possible preceding hominoids. In other words, science may be aiding in the reassertion of mystery behind human nature. Gone are the over-simplistic maps of human evolution that seek to explain in neat and tidy fashion the gradual appearance of humans from previous, distinct stages in evolution. What is being admitted now, perhaps, is that human evolution is not as explicable as once was thought, and just as many evolutionary biologists thought their scientific destinations were only beyond the horizon they are now discovering that the distance and ground to cover is increasingly lengthening. Any thoughts?

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