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Did Humans and Neanderthals Interbreed?

As I write this article, the final weeks of the TV season are upon us. Many of my favorite shows are concluding their season run with a cliffhanger. I can’t wait for September to find out what happens!

In the scientific realm, the topic of human-Neanderthal interbreeding is turning into a bit of a cliffhanger as well.

Only a few years ago (2010) researchers surprised the scientific world with data indicating that humans and Neanderthals interbred. Presumably, these encounters left behind a 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal contribution to the human genome. Since that time, other studies have suggested that humans also interbred with the mysterious Denisovans. In fact, even in this short timespan, the scientific community has practically elevated human-hominid interbreeding to the level of orthodoxy.

I’ve discussed this issue numerous times via online articles and podcasts because RTB often receives questions about it. People wonder how the interbreeding scenario impacts the doctrine of creation, in particular the belief that humanity was specially created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27). As disturbing as this topic may be, I caution everyone against drawing premature conclusions. The plot is still twisting and turning.

A number of more recent studies report that genetic signatures some paleoanthropologists have interpreted as evidence for interbreeding may actually owe their existence to the original human population’s substructure—not to interbreeding. Perhaps the same effects have also led to unwarranted conclusions about other markers thought to indicate interbreeding.

Additional studies raise questions about whether the opportunity to interbreed ever arose. Using improved carbon-14 methodology, researchers re-dated Neanderthal remains from Iberia and the Mezmaiskaya Cave site in Russia. The results showed that Neanderthals went extinct earlier than previously thought. In fact, it is unlikely that humans and Neanderthals encountered one another at all during humanity’s migration into Europe.

Obviously, such a scenario would preclude interbreeding. More work needs to be done before the human-primate drama ends its season run. I look forward to the next episode in this ongoing scientific saga.