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Were Neanderthals human?

One reader wrote in, “My niece recently came home from her first year of college. At our annual family celebration of Memorial Day in Cape May she did not eat any hamburgers or hot dogs, but instead brought veggie burgers. We got into a discussion about her new lifestyle. I was saying that it could not be wrong for us to eat meat because God gave us dominion over the earth and its animals, as it says in the book of Genesis. My niece agreed with me, but said that just because we have dominion over something does not mean that we can treat that thing any way we want. For example, I have dominion over my house, but it would be wrong for me, and ungodly of me, to let it go into disrepair out of laziness. Though at the end of the day I think it is ok for us to eat meat, I have started to rethink the morality of factory farms.

Anyway, my real question is not about cows and pigs. This issue also made me think about our relationship to the Neanderthals some 40,000 years ago. Scientists tell us that the Neanderthals are not Humans, but they are very similar to humans and lived at the same time and even crossed paths with us. Did God give us dominion over the Neanderthals in the same way as other land animals? If so, do you think the appropriate treatment of the Neanderthals by us would have been different in God’s eyes than the appropriate treatment of cows and pigs?”

Last week we talked about what it means to have dominion over the earth and over animals. We talked about how dominion doesn’t mean to “do whatever you want no matter how cruel” but that it involves being responsible to accurately reflect a loving God to his creation. Today we are going to attempt to respond to the second part of the above question related to Neanderthals.

There was a time when scientists argued quite convincingly that Neanderthals were subhuman, but over the last twenty years or so, more and more research has come out to suggest otherwise. Before we give a cursory view of that, I want to touch on what makes humanity unique from the rest of creation.

Humanity alone was made in the image of God. This doesn’t mean that we look like God, but that we share traits (called communicable attributes) that are unique to us versus animals. People have tried to pin this down for hundreds of years, and many cultures have somehow tied it into the idea of having a soul, or a spiritual element to our humanity. For those who think that humans are nothing more than animals, I know that I won’t convince you, but for those who realize that we are different, you understand my point.

So what about Neanderthals? Well, if they were human, then they were made in the image of God. This would mean that no, they were not to be treated as animals. The evil of murder and the biblical drive for social justice all ties back to the image of God. All mankind should be loved and cared for.

That being said, mankind has a terrifying capacity for evil, and we know all too well - even with modern history - that people are quite comfortable treating other humans as no better than dirt.

So were Neanderthals human? Modern research seems to suggest that they were, although many still cling to the old guard. In the last few decades, research has come out to suggest that yes, they were. As one researcher pointed out, “Neanderthals were human. They buried their dead, used tools, had a complex social structure, employed language, and played musical instruments. Neanderthal anatomy differences are extremely minor and can be for the most part explained as a result of a genetically isolated people that lived a rigorous life in a harsh, cold climate.”

In 1996, a small bone flute was discovered at a Neanderthal cave in Slovenia. Animals don’t make bone flutes. They don’t build burial grounds and set them up in ritualistic fashion. It seems to me, at least, that Neanderthals were human, and, therefore, worthy of the same God-ordained respect as all others.