Analyzing fossils from a cave in Siberia, scientists have found the first known Neanderthal family: a father, his teenage daughter, and others who were probably close cousins. The findings paint a picture of an actual family that lived 54,000 years ago.
The science and other stuff to know
Neanderthals mysteriously became extinct about 40,000 years ago. And through genomic analyses, scientists have provided insights into their population history and relationship to modern humans.
To explore the social structure of this extinct human species, an international team led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology mapped DNA samples from remains of 13 Neanderthals — eight adults and five children — found in Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov. And the team was able to recover a large part of the genome of the 13 individuals.
According to their research, which was published in the journal Nature, multiple related persons were found among these 13 remains. They include a father and his teenage daughter, along with a pair of second-degree relatives — a young boy and an adult female, perhaps a cousin, aunt, or grandmother. The fascinating combination suggests they must have lived and died at around the same time.
Laurits Skov, the first author of this study, said, “The fact that they were living at the same time is very exciting. This means that they likely came from the same social community. So, for the first time, we can use genetics to study the social organization of a Neanderthal community.”
Further analysis of the genome revealed that the genetic diversity of mitochondrial DNA, inherited from mothers, was much higher than that for the Y chromosome passed from father to son. This confirms previous studies that claim Neanderthal women left their families to go and live with other groups and bear children. Males, on the other hand, stayed put in the same clan. It’s a common practice in many current hunter-gatherer societies, one that prevents diseases and sterility associated with inbreeding.
The finding provides the most detailed picture to date of what Neanderthal groups were like. With 10 to 20 members, they seem to have been a small family.
“It makes you wonder what the familial relationship between these individuals was and how they were interacting with each other,” said Skov. “It is a little glimpse into a Neanderthal family.”
Meanwhile, Benjamin Peter, the last author of the study, added, “Our study provides a concrete picture of what a Neanderthal community may have looked like. It makes Neanderthals seem much more human to me.”
The findings in the study also confirm key data to understand why Neanderthal disappeared forever.
Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov are archaeological treasure troves in which humans, Neanderthals, Denisovans (and at least one Neanderthal–Denisovan hybrid) all lived intermittently over some 300,000 years ago. Excavations at Chagyrskaya, however, have so far revealed only Neanderthal remains, dating between 50,000 to 60,000 years ago.
The Chagyrskaya family is likely to grow since only one-third of the cave has been excavated so far. Moreover, Skov and his colleagues have only analyzed less than one-quarter of the Neanderthal remains already discovered. The team hopes future studies can build more complete Neanderthal family trees — and perhaps find the teenage girl’s mother.