First Known Neanderthal Family Identified with Ancient DNA from Russian Cave
DNA from Neanderthal bones found in a cave in Russia have revealed the first known family of Neanderthals – a father, his teenage daughter, and others who were probably cousins.
A 2020 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A detailed how Neanderthals trekked 3,000 kilometers (1,865 miles) to reach Siberia’s Altai Mountain range. The Neanderthals were not wandering aimlessly, hunting and gathering, but had developed “a distinctive toolkit used to kill and butcher bison and horses”.
Neanderthal fossils were first identified in 2007 in the Chagyrskaya Cave in the foothills of the Altai Mountains in Central and East Asia, where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan converge. The 3.5 meter (11.5 feet) deep cave held the bones of butchered bison, which indicated that Neanderthals lived in the cave sometime between 59,000 and 49,000 years ago. Evidence has been found in the cave of tool production and use almost 5,000 years before modern humans arrived in the region.
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View of the Neanderthal site Chagyrskaya Cave, Altai Mountains, Russia. (Tbviola / CC BY SA 4.0)
Unlocking the Secrets in Teeth and Bones
Over the last ten years, archaeologists have excavated 74 individual Neanderthal fossils from this one cave site, which is more than any other site in the region. Furthermore, almost 90,000 stone tools and numerous bone tools have been recovered.
The new study published in the October edition of Nature presented the latest findings of evolutionary geneticist Laurits Skov from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The researchers looked at DNA gathered from the teeth and bones of 13 individual Siberian Neanderthals who lived about 59,000 years ago. All thirteen belonged to one social group that had occupied two caves in southern Siberia’s Altai Mountains in Central Asia.
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Documented range of Neanderthals; Chagyrskaya Cave area in violet (Nilenbert / CC BY SA 3.0)
The new findings demonstrate that male Neanderthals seldom left the caves in which they were born, while females on the other hand, often left their birthplaces to live with their male partners.
A jaw fragment from one of the Chagyrskaya Cave Neanderthals. DNA analysis has enabled scientists to learn more about the group’s social composition. (Thilo Parg / CC BY SA 4.0)
First Known Neanderthal Family
Dr. Skov’s team studied the DNA of 11 Neanderthals from Chagyrskaya Cave and two from Okladnikov Cave. Two of the communities of Neanderthals comprised small groups of about 20 close relatives.
DNA from the Chagyrskaya individuals also included samples from a father and teenage daughter, an adult female and a boy aged between 8 and 12 years old. It is suspected the child was the female adult’s nephew, or maybe her grandson. What this all means, socially, is that while males tended to stay in the cave in which they were born, both communities welcomed “adult female newcomers.” In other words, adult females frequently moved into different communities while the males “stayed put”.
Charting the Mating Habits of Neanderthals
The fact that female Neanderthals often migrated from their home cave to the nearby cave homes of their mates suggests Neanderthals formed close-knit communities. And while this certainly was the case at the Chagyrskaya Cave, the scientists are being careful not to project this finding across the Neanderthal world. It is unclear if the evidence that Altai Neanderthals lived “small-scale lifestyles” was unusual, or not.
Neanderthals spread across Central Europe around 125,000 years ago, and these new results suggest they “scaled up and formed communities when needed.” The team of researchers speculated that maybe their results were found because these particular groups of Neanderthals lived “in a sparsely populated area, or mirrored Neanderthal practices elsewhere in Asia and Europe”.
A 2019 study of 257 Neanderthal footprints in Le Rozel (Normandy, France) dated to 80,000 BC showed that they represented a small nomadic group with a majority of children. Thus, the 2019 research provided direct evidence of the social composition of a Neanderthal group. Now, this new research presents similar insights from a non-nomadic Neanderthal group on the other side of the world.
Top Image: Recent DNA analysis of Neanderthal bones from Russia are providing insight into mating and migration habits, as well as social dynamics. Source: Gorondenkoff / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie
Bower, B. October 19, 2022. Ancient DNA unveils Siberian Neandertals’ small-scale social lives. Science News. Available at: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/ancient-dna-siberian-neandertals-social-lives
Siberian Neanderthals were Intrepid Nomads. January 28, 2020. University of Wollongong, Australia. Available at: https://www.uow.edu.au/media/2020/siberian-neanderthals-were-intrepid-nomads.php
Skov, L., Peyregne, S., et al. Genetic insights into the social organization of Neanderthals. October 19, 2022. Nature. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-022-05283-y