The physical and spiritual status of Neanderthals has been hotly debated since the first fossilize of bones were described from Neander Valley in Germany in 1856. Since that time bones from more than 400 Neanderthal individuals have been recovered over a large geographical range (fig 1). Hundreds of published studies on these bones, artifacts such as tools, habitations, and possible artwork and now DNA have given us a clearer picture of the physical and cultural capacities of these hominids.
For evangelical Christians questions about Neanderthals go far beyond their physical similarities. Rather it is their spiritual status that is of great interest. Are Neanderthals part of the headwaters of the human race or do they fall outside the bounds of those made in God’s image? How do Neanderthals fit into fundamental doctrines of original sin and debate over the historicity of Adam?
The answers to these questions from the Christian community have been confusing and contradictory to put it mildly. Some believe Neanderthals were fundamentally no different from any group of people alive today. Others believe them to be a separate species with no relationship with modern humans and thus devoid of the image of God. It is not surprising that given these opposing responses from theologians and lay Christian leaders that many Christians are confused about how to think about Neanderthals.
Below I provide an example of these different approachs to Neanderthals and then review how prominent science and faith organizations deal with the Neanderthal question.
Did Neanderthal and Modern Humans Interbreed?
I will illustrate the diverse response of the Christian community to Neanderthals in the answers to a question I asked at the 2014 Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meeting.
I attended a panel discussion between members of BioLogos, Reasons to Believe (RTB), and Southern Baptists (See Part I and Part II of my reflections on ETS). In the Q&A time following the panel discussion, I asked the following question directly primarily at the RTP representatives: When I send out my DNA for genetic analysis and I get the results back and I am told that I am 2.9% Neanderthal, what should I think about this? I further qualified that I understood that there were some questionable assumptions behind that particular percentage but the idea is that this data has convinced the majority of geneticists that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred in the past.
Dr. Rana of Reasons to Believe was first to respond. He acknowledged that the consensus view does seem to have shifted toward acceptance of past hybridization of Neanderthals with modern humans. However, it was his contention that it was too early to be sure. He questioned the quality of Neanderthal sequences and suggested that the genetic models are not clear enough for us to draw this conclusion.
Dr. Rana went on to talk about low population sizes of Neanderthals and the statistical unlikeliness that Neanderthals would have encountered modern humans during their short time of overlap in Europe. I discovered later that most of his responses were similar to opinions he expressed in an article, Neanderthal Population Data Raised Doubt about Human-Neanderthal Interbreeding, written just one month earlier.
Dr. Faulk representing BioLogos objected to Ranna’s take on the data. He mentioned the results of a ancient human DNA genome sequence that was obtained from a 45,000 year old bone preserved in Siberia just a few months ago. The DNA from that bone revealed it belonged to a anatomically modern human that had a similar amount of Neanderthal DNA as found in Europeans today. Dr. Faulk went on to explain the genetic significance of this discovery. Having read the paper that Dr. Faulk was referring to not more a few weeks earlier I understood just what he was saying. However, I had the feeling that I might have been one of only a handful of people in a room of over 100 that caught the significance of the genetic data that he was so excited about. I appreciated the enthusiasm but there was too much detail in his explanation. I probably can’t sum this data up much better but I’ll give it a try in the footnotes below.*
Dr. Hugh Ross (Reasons to Believe) responded by noting that he had addressed the Neanderthal issue recently (I haven’t been able to find this in writing) by addressing the question, what if there had been hybridization? While he professed that he was not convinced that hybridization had occurred, he nonetheless explained that even if hybridization of Neanderthals and modern human had indeed happened it would not be proof that Neanderthals had the image of God. He hypothesized instead that this could have been an example of bestiality that the OT was so adamant in warning against. Man is sinful and this could have been a sinful act of rebellion rather than relations among descendants of Adam and Eve.
Evangelical Approaches to Neanderthals
I found the responses to my Neanderthal question fascinating and illuminating. Differences in the approach to scientific data and Biblical interpretation between BioLogos and Reasons to Believe were clearly evident. The stark contrast on display at ETS caused me wonder how their responses to Neanderthals compared to other Christian viewpoints. Below I briefly summarize the views of four groups of scientists and theists dedicated to helping Christians articulate their faith in light of scientific discoveries.
Reasons to Believe (Progressive Creationists): RTB accepts the scientific consensus that Neanderthals lived from over 200,000 years to ca. 40,000 years ago (1). They believe that Neanderthals were a separately created species and thus do not share a common ancestor with modern man and were not endowed with the image of God. Any resemblance with modern man is due to common design features used by God to create modern man and other hominids but not due to physical common ancestry. They dispute evidence of common ancestry and generally downplay or call into question evidence of complex tool use and possible artwork produced by Neanderthals. Regarding possible hybridization they offer alternative hypothesis for explaining possible hybridization and so dispute the growing consensus view that hybridization happened.
Bottom Line: Neanderthals are separate unrelated ancient animal creation and were not spiritual beings.
Scientific Creationists (Young Earth Creationists, YECs): Nearly universal in proclaiming Neanderthals to be descendants of Adam and Eve and therefore created in the image of God. YECs believe that all of the features we see today in Neanderthals were encoded in the DNA of the eight persons saved on Noah’s Ark. So all Neanderthals have lived since a global flood which ended just 4350 years ago. It is proposed they represent populations of individuals that migrated from Babel around 4250 years ago into Europe and specialized in living in caves. They agree that Neanderthals disappeared before the peak of the last Ice Age which they believe happened 4100 years ago (See the Ice Age timeline according to Answers in Genesis). All Neanderthals are thus compressed into a maximum of 150 years of Earth’s history! Some creationists claim their striking cranial features and strong bones were just the result of their living in harsh cold conditions after the Ice Age.
What about hybridization? For YECs, evidence of hybridization is not unexpected since Neanderthals are just a population of people and thus would have had some interaction with other people that migrated into Europe a bit later.
YEC regularly downplay the differences between Neanderthals and humans including the genetic differences that have been found. They also readily accept the findings of anthropology that Neanderthals may have expressed some forms of culture such as burying their dead and production of art. In addition, I should note that YECs generally consider all the named lineages of Homo including H. erectus, H. floresienses (the hobbit) and H. hiedelbergensis to be variations of modern humans and all descendants of Noah and his family. Notably some YECs accept the recently named Homo naledi from South Africa as being human but others such as Answers in Genesis consider those fossils are representing a “fully ape” lineage (see: Bones of Contention: Young-Earth Creationists Confusion over Homo naledi Fossils)
Bottom Line: Neanderthals are descendants of Adam and Eve and no different from you and me in any way other than minor anatomical differences.
Intelligent Design: There is some diversity of opinion among ID advocates. Most leaders of the ID movement appear to take the position that Neanderthals are one of us. They believe that Neanderthals, and other hominids species such as Homo erectus and H. hiedelbergensis are all descendants of a specially created ancestor of all Homo by an intelligent designer. Most ID advocates don’t believe in common ancestry of man with other primates but may be willing to accept that the first created man may have branched off into various races of people by natural processes. They accept the fossil record of Homo as a record of a million years or more of changes to the Homo lineage. Because Neanderthals are just a race of man and related by common ancestor they would not have a problem accepting the evidence of hybridization of Neanderthal and modern man.
Because ID claims to have no commitment to a particular designer and do not discuss theological issues with any regularity it would be up to the individual to determine what it meant to for man to have the image of God and when God installed that image into the Homo lineage. Christian ID advocates would probably find a diverse range of opinions on this matter ranging from the original Homo a million years ago and all its descendant lineages having the image of God to maybe a more recent origin of the image of God, given only to the genetic lineage we call Homo sapiens today. Those that want to associate man as having the image of God with great cultural awareness may place that image much later but then it would not be placed on a single couple that gave rise to all other people but on a representative pair or an entire group. That group could be all anatomically modern people excluding Neanderthals or sometime before the split of modern human and Neanderthal.
Bottom Line: Neanderthals are one of several lineages of homo the has diverged naturally since the special creation of humans by an intelligent designer about a million years ago.
Evolutionary Creationists (BioLogos): ECs follow the consensus scientific view that Neanderthal a sister species to modern man. Hybridized with modern man did occur, even if very rarely, 40 to 60 thousands years ago. Members of BioLogos may take different approaches to understanding the spiritual status of Neanderthals. Neandethals may have had the image of God and were descendants of the first Adam who was endowed with the image of God and was a common ancestor to both populations. Another possibility is a representative view that Adam represented mankind and the image of God was conferred to all humanity including Neanderthals and Adam’s sin likewise was conferred to all those with the image of God. Another possibility is that Neanderthals are not fully human but illicitly had relations with God’s chosen race. Most ECs would be convinced that Neanderthals were definitely not the same as modern man in terms of their physical status and not closely related to any modern man alive but do share a common ancestor. That ancestor is estimated to have lived 300 to 400 thousand of years ago.
Bottom Line: Neanderthals diverged from the ancestors of modern humans hundreds of thousands of years ago and have hybridized with modern man. The may or may-not bear the image of God depending on a persons understanding of what the image of God is and when God established the headwaters of his image-bearing people.
It should be apparent that question of what to do with Neanderthals is one that clearly divides the Christian community. Here, the YEC position has a great advantage because it seems to provide a simple answer that conforms with all previously held orthodox positions on the unity of the human race, humans as image bearers of God and the universality of our sinful nature. It preserves a historical Adam and Eve and placed Neanderthals in the human family tree. Unfortunately this simple view is confounded by a lack of physical evidence. YECs must construct a long strong of ad-hoc explanations for the distribution of fossil hominids, the differences in anatomical characters and the genetic distinctiveness of Neanderthals. There is also the question of the seeming lack of most intellectual capacities in Neanderthals that some might consider as part of the being God’s image bearer. The YEC explanation turns out not to be a simple answer at all but rather only a deceptively simple answer and thus of little use.
Unable to compress all the entire Neanderthal race into a short history between a global flood and a singular Ice Age, Christians who accept an age-indeterminate reading of Genesis 1 are not left without a Neanderthal challenge. If the last Neanderthal’s walked the earth up until about 40,000 years ago what do we make of their spiritual condition? The temporal origin of the image of God becomes a central question for which there is no simple answer forthcoming. When I look at a survey of seven options for understanding Adam and Evolution provided by Lee Irons and ask how the spiritual status of Neanderthal would fit into this table it is obvious that there would be tremendous variation in opinions even within many of his categories.
I don’t have satisfying answers to these fundamental theological questions. That Neanderthals were genetically distinct seems clear enough but whether that places themselves outside of humanity I don’t know. Because there are so many unknowns I profess to lean toward the Biologos approach here. That approach sees the moral and spiritual questions about Neanderthals as open and unanswered. Scientists and theologians are encouraged to sift the data, draw up hypotheses and test them against Scripture and God’s book of nature. We know that genetic studies of ancient man are only in the very first stages of development. Within a decade 10s of thousands of ancient people will be genetically analyzed and new archaeological finds will surely continue to reshape our views of the cultural capacities of ancient hominid groups.
Christians should be humble in their approach to difficult questions even if they may be very important questions. Committing oneself to a particular belief without sufficient scriptural warrant causes one to become entrenched in one’s position leading to interpretation of facts – biblical or physical – based on preconceived notions. There is still much to learn both from science and from continued biblical studies especially concerning the meaning of being made in the image of God. I pray that we will one day have clearer answers but until then I hope that we can sharpen each other over time.
Addendum: Scientific Evidence that Neanderthals were Genetically and Physically Distinct from Living Humans
Our perceptions of Neanderthals have been influenced heavily by early drawings and speculation. An early description of Neaderthals as humans with genetic conditions or suffering from rickets due to their perceived cave-dwelling nature has been an enduring one for the public. For 100 years Neanderthals were only known from a few specimens but today we have hundreds of specimens and have identified many locations where Neanderthals lived. In the last decade a clearer picture of these hominids has been constructed. The most important new evidence comes from DNA sequences extracted from bones and teeth.
Below I show a few figures that summarize data collected in the past decade that has convinced anthropologists that Neanderthals represent a distinct genetic and anatomical lineage of hominids if not a separate species. This is presented as a scientific data without commentary on how these data should be interpreted theologically.
First we have a snapshot of genetic differences among living people and Neanderthals and two other fossils hominids. The length of the lines that connect the samples represents the amount of genetic differences. You can see that all people alive today are much more similar to each other than they are to any Neanderthal. Also notice that Neanderthals from several locations have been genetically analyzed and although they may be separated by hundreds of miles and dated thousands of years apart they are much more similar to each other genetically then they are to any other known DNA sequences. This is very strong evidence that Neanderthals represent a unique genetic lineage apart from any lineage of people alive today.
Below is a figure showing a similar set of data but with more samples. Samples in grey represent individuals from all people groups on Earth alive today. The length of the lines shows how different they are genetically with African lineages having the most variation. All Neanderthal sequences are more similar to one another than they are to any person alive today.
It may be tempting to think that these differences are simply the result of DNAs from living people vs sequences from a lineage that died off thousands of years ago but in the past couple of years bones of modern humans from thousands of years to even tens of thousands of years old have been DNA sequenced and those bones produce DNAs that fall right into the grey group. One example is Otzi the Iceman whose body was found frozen in the Alps a decade ago. Despite being more than 5000 years old his DNA sequence showed that he is closely related to southern Europeans today.
Below is a figure showing some of the typical differences in skull features between humans and Neanderthals.
* Today Europeans have a small percentage 1 to 3% of their DNA that is a match the genome of Neanderthals. That DNA is spread around in our genomes as tiny little bits. To have spread to all Europeans that intermixing event would have had to have occurred long ago so that Neanderthal DNA introduced into the population would have had time to spread. Each generation that DNA not only would be passed on but would also be mixed in our genomes as we recombine our chromosomes prior to reproduction. So genetic models can backtrack how long it would take since a hybridization event for our genomes to look like they do today. These models suggest it would have been 40 to 60 thousand years ago. Last year, a complete sequence of a 45,000 year old modern human from a Siberian cave was produced. Analysis of that skeleton revealed that this person also had about 3% Neanderthal sequence but significantly that Neanderthal DNA was found in long pieces of intact Neanderthal genome segments rather than broken into thousands of pieces like it is in my genome. This is just what geneticists predict would be found in someone who was much closer in time to the hybridization event. In fact with that genome now they were able to calculate much more precisely how many generations had passed since the introduction of Neanderthal DNA into the lineage that lead to that 45,000 year old man.
1) Pinhasi, Ron, Thomas FG Higham, Liubov V. Golovanova, and Vladimir B. Doronichev. “Revised age of late Neanderthal occupation and the end of the Middle Paleolithic in the northern Caucasus.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 21 (2011): 8611-8616.
Cover image: ANeanderthal and a human kid. Image credit: Neanderthal Museum.