The first known family. DNA from a group of Neanderthals who lived together has provided the best genetic look to date at the society of these ancient hominins. About 59,000 years ago , Neanderthal communities in a mountainous part of Central Asia consisted of small groups of close relatives (cousins, aunt and nephew or grandmother and grandson) and newly arrived adult women, according to researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Anthropology. Evolutionary from Germany who analyzed the DNA of several individuals from two caves in the Altai Mountains in a landmark new study published in the journal Nature.
Confirmation of the oldest known Neanderthal family has been made possible by DNA extracted from the teeth and bones of 13 Neanderthals found in two caves in the foothills of the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia. Their DNA confirmed that they were closely related, including a father and his teenage daughter, along with a couple of second-degree relatives. This is the first known description of the social organization of a small community of Neanderthals.
“The fact that they lived at the same time is very exciting. This means that they probably came from the same social community. So, for the first time, we can use genetics to study the social organization of a Neanderthal community,” explains Laurits Skov, job leader.
About Neanderthal Populations
Southern Siberia has previously been very fruitful for ancient DNA research, and is the location of Denisova Cave , where hominin remains of Denisovans were found.
Neanderthals occupied western Eurasia from around 430,000 years ago until their extinction around 40,000 years ago . However, little is known about the genetic relationships and social organization within and among Neanderthal communities anywhere in Eurasia during this time interval.
“By social organization, we mean the size, sexual composition, and spatio-temporal cohesion of a community,” Skov clarifies. “We define a community as a set of individuals presumably living together in the same place, and we reserve the term population for a set of widely connected communities in a larger geographic area .”
The cave was occupied for part of the period from 59,000-51,000 years ago, and dating measurements lack the precision to refine this further.
It is unknown whether the small-scale lifestyle of the Altai Neanderthals was unusual, perhaps due to living in a sparsely populated area, or whether it reflected Neanderthal practices in other parts of Asia and Europe.
Since the first draft of the Neanderthal genome was published in 2010, researchers at the German institution have sequenced another 18 genomes from 14 different archaeological sites in Eurasia. This is the largest known genetic study of Neanderthals reported to date.
Mitochondrial DNA also gave insight into the genetic diversity within the community, which is very low and consistent with a group size of 10 to 20 people. The genetic diversity of Y chromosomes, which are passed down the male line, was also found to be much less than that of mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from mothers. This suggests that the communities were linked primarily by female migration.
“Our study provides a concrete picture of what a Neanderthal community might have been like,” says Benjamin Peter, also from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and co-author of the study. “It makes Neanderthals seem so much more human to me.”
Reference: L. Skov et al. 2022. Genetic insights into the social organization of Neanderthals. Nature 610, 519–525; doi: 10.1038/s41586-022-05283-y