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Ancient Genome of 13 Individuals Show They Were Just Like Us in Many Ways

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Chagyrskaya Cave in the Alta Mountains of southern Siberia

Ancient genomes of 13 individual Neanderthals show they ate, slept, loved and died in the company of their kin and were connected to other groups that made up a region’s Neanderthal population.

An international team mapped DNA from the bones of eight adult males and five children to shed fresh light on our ancient cousins.

Their findings provide the first snapshot of an actual family that lived 54,000 years ago.

“Our study provides a concrete picture of what a Neanderthal community may have looked like,” said co-author Benjamin Peter, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany. “It makes them seem much more human to me.”

Eleven of the specimens come from remains dug up in Chagyrskaya Cave in the Alta Mountains of southern Siberia.

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, and together make up the largest known genetic study of Neanderthals to date.

Female migration drove diversity

Chagyrskaya Cave has been excavated over the last 14 years producing one of the largest assemblages of its kind in the world.

Besides several hundred thousand stone tools and animal bones, Russian scientists recovered more than 80 bone and tooth fragments of Neanderthals.

They occupied western Eurasia from around 430,000 to 40,000 years ago and are closely related to modern humans.

“The fact [these individuals] were living at the same time is very exciting. This means they likely came from the same social community,” said first author Dr. Laurits Skov, also from the Max Planck Institute. “So, for the first time, we can use genetics to study the social organization of a Neanderthal community.”

Another striking finding is the extremely low genetic diversity—consistent with a group size of 10 to 20 individuals. This is much lower than those for any ancient or present-day human community, and is more similar to the sizes of endangered species at the verge of extinction.

The study in the journal Nature found genetic diversity of mitochondrial DNA suggests the communities were primarily linked by female migration. What’s more, it did not involve Denisovans that occupied Denisova Cave 60 miles away.

There was no evidence of gene flow from this other group of mysterious ancient humans in the previous 20,000 years.

DNA has been retrieved from just 18 Neanderthals since the first draft genome was published in 2010.

They have provided a broad review of the population but little was known about their social organization—until now.

The Neanderthals at Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov hunted ibex, horses, bison and other animals that migrated through the river valleys that the caves overlook.

They collected raw materials for their stone tools tens of miles away. The occurrence of the same raw material also supports the genetic data that the groups inhabiting these localities were closely linked.

Previous studies of a fossil toe from Denisova cave showed that Neandertals inhabited the Altai mountains considerably earlier as well, around 120,000 years ago.

Genetic data shows the Neanderthals are not descendants of these earlier groups, but are closer related to European Neanderthals.

“Detailed analysis of present-day hunting and gathering societies shows both men and women frequently move between groups and that dispersed relatives often maintain lifelong ties, which is not the case for apes.”

“A father whose daughter moves to another community is able to recognize his
grandchildren as kin and to bond with, or at least tolerate, his son-in-law. This can allow vast social networks to form, if population densities are high enough,” said Cassidy.

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