The first snapshot of a Neanderthal community was put together by scientists who examined ancient DNA from bone and tooth fragments discovered in caves in southern Siberia.
Researchers analyzed the DNA of 13 Neanderthal men, women and children and found an interconnected network of relationships, including a father and teenage daughter, another man related to the father, and two second-degree relatives, possibly an aunt and her nephew.
Researchers believe that every Neanderthal interbreed in abundance, as a result of the small Neanderthal population, with their communities spread over vast distances and numbering only 10-30 individuals.
The fact that Neanderthals were alive at the same time was “extremely exciting” and suggests they belonged to a single social community, said Lauritz Skov, first author of the study at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.
Neanderthal remains have been found from many caves across western Eurasia – an area that heavy-browed humans occupied about 430,000 years ago until they became extinct 40,000 years ago. It was previously impossible to tell whether Neanderthals found at certain sites belonged to societies or not.
“Neanderthals in general, and those with preserved DNA in particular, are extremely rare,” said Benjamin Peter, senior author of the study in Leipzig. “We tend to get singles from locations often thousands of kilometers and tens of thousands of years apart.”
In the latest work, researchers including Svante Papu, this year’s Nobel Prize winner in medicine for studies of ancient genome penetration, examined DNA from Neanderthal remains found in Chagirskaya Cave and nearby Okladnikov Cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia.
Neanderthals hunkered down in caves about 54,000 years ago, seeking refuge to feed on the caribou, horse, and bison they hunted as the animals migrated along river valleys overlooked by the caves. In addition to the bones of Neanderthals and animals, tens of thousands of stone tools were also found.
Writing in Nature, the scientists write how ancient DNA indicates Neanderthals lived at the same time, with some being members of the same family.
Further analysis revealed more genetic diversity in Neanderthal mitochondria — the small, battery-like structures inside cells that are only passed down through the maternal line — than in their Y chromosomes, which are passed from father to son. The researchers say the most likely explanation is that female Neanderthals traveled from their local communities to live with male partners. But whether force is involved is not a question that DNA can answer. “Personally, I don’t think there is particularly good evidence that Neanderthals were much different from early modern humans who lived at the same time,” Peter said.
“We found that the community we were studying was likely very small, perhaps 10 to 20 individuals, and that the broader Neanderthal groups in the Altai Mountains were very few,” Peter said. “However, they have been able to persevere in a harsh environment for hundreds of thousands of years, which I believe deserves great respect.”
Dr Lara Cassidy, associate professor of genetics at Trinity College Dublin, described the study as a “milestone” as “the first genomic snapshot of a Neanderthal community”.
“Understanding how their communities are organized is important for many reasons,” Cassidy said. “It humanizes these people and gives a rich context to their lives. But also, if we had more studies like this, it might also reveal unique aspects of our social organization A wise man Ancestral. This is critical to understanding why we are here today and why there were no Neanderthals.”
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