New York (AFP) – Neanderthals formed small, tight-knit communities where females may have traveled to live with their mates, a new study suggests.
The research used genetic espionage to provide a rare snapshot of Neanderthal family dynamics – including a father and teenage daughter who lived together in Siberia more than 50,000 years ago.
Researchers have been able to pull DNA from tiny bone fragments found in two Russian caves. in their studies, Published Wednesday in the journal NatureIn this study, they used genetic data to map the relationships of 13 different Neanderthals and obtain clues about how they lived.
“When I’m working on a bone or two, it’s very easy to forget that these are actually people with their own lives and stories,” said study author Bence Viola, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto. “Knowing how they relate to each other really makes them more human.”
Our ancient cousins, Neanderthals, lived throughout Europe and Asia for hundreds of thousands of years. They died out about 40,000 years ago, shortly after our species, Homo sapiens, arrived in Europe from Africa.
Only recently have scientists been able to research the DNA of these early humans. New Nobel Laureate Svante Paabo, an author on this latest study, published the first draft of the Neanderthal genome a little over a decade ago.
Since then, scientists have sequenced 18 Neanderthal genomes, said lead author Laurits Skov, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. But he said it’s rare to find Neanderthal bones from the same time and place – which is why these cave finds were so special.
“If there was ever a chance of finding a Neanderthal community, it would be that,” Skov said.
Viola said the caves, located in remote foothills above a river valley, were a rich source of materials from stone tools to fossil fragments. From their initial view of herd migration into the valley below, the researchers believe the caves may have served as a short-lived hunting station for Neanderthals.
Viola said archaeologists excavating the caves have found the remains of at least a dozen different Neanderthals. These remains usually come in the form of bits and pieces – “a finger bone here, a tooth there” – but they are enough for scientists to extract valuable DNA details.
The researchers were able to identify a couple of relatives among the group. Along with the father and daughter, there was a couple of other relatives – perhaps a son and his aunt, or two of his cousins.
In general, the analysis found that everyone in the group had a lot in common from their DNA. The researchers concluded that this indicates that, at least in this region, Neanderthals lived in very small communities of 10 to 20 individuals.
But not everyone in these groups stayed put, according to the study.
The researchers looked at other genetic evidence from mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on from the mother’s side, and the Y chromosome, which is passed on from the father’s side.
Skov said the female side showed more genetic differences than the male side – which means females may have moved more. It is possible that when a female Neanderthal finds a mate, she will leave the house to live with his family.
John Hawkes, a University of Wisconsin anthropologist, who was not involved in the study, said the research was an exciting application of ancient DNA evidence, even as many questions remain about Neanderthals’ social structures and lifestyles.
Figuring out how early humans lived is like putting together a puzzle where we have lots and lots of missing pieces, Hawkes said. But this study means that “someone threw more pieces on the table.”
The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Division of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.
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