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An ancient DNA test reveals the first Neanderthal family portrait

Meet the Neanderthals from Chagyrskaya Cave. A riverside hunting camp at the Altai mountain foothills in Siberia housed a small community of 20 people about 54,000 years ago. This included a father and daughter, a young male, possibly a nephew or cousin, and a second-degree relative, perhaps an aunt or grandmother.

She would likely have left her family and moved to find a man for her father. She would likely have stayed if she had been a boy like her little cousin. However, she would likely have met familiar faces in the new communities she moved to.

These are just a few of the details about the Neanderthal family’s social and personal lives that were revealed through a study on ancient DNA from 11 Neanderthal residents of Chagyrskaya Cave as well as two other remains from nearby Okladnikov Cave.

This is the oldest family group known. Scientists have also been able to document the Neanderthal community and family structure for the first time. It makes our distant cousins seem more human.

“It was very exciting to see them living together at the same moment. This suggests that they probably came from the same social group. In a news release, Laurits Sko, coauthor of the study and a researcher at Leipzig’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, stated that genetics can now be used to study the social organization in Neandertal communities for the first-ever time. “Neandertal” can be spelled in an alternative German spelling.

Researchers extracted DNA from 17 bones, teeth, and other remains that belonged to seven male Neanderthals and six female Neanderthals. Eight of the Neanderthals were adults while five were children.

Genetic threads

Multiple threads of genetic ancestry were unraveled by them: mitochondrial DNA, which follows a maternal line; Y chromosome DNA, which is inherited via the male line; and nucleic DNA.

Researchers discovered several heteroplasmy in the mitochondrial DNA. These are genetic signatures that last for a few generations and can be shared by individual Neanderthals. According to the researchers, this phenomenon suggests that the Neanderthals they studied from Chagyrskaya Cave could have lived and died at the same time.

The genetic diversity of the Y chromosome DNA was also lower than the mitochondrial DNA which is passed from mother to child. According to the study, two males could share an ancestor for around 450 years. The equivalent estimate for females was 4,350 years.

According to the researchers, the best explanation was that 60% or more of the female Neanderthals living in the small Chagyrskaya community had immigrated from another community. This social structure is called patrilocality in hunter-gather societies today.

The study also found that the community had very low levels of genetic diversity, which was significantly lower than any other ancient or modern-day human community. This diversity level was similar to that of endangered species, such as mountain gorillas (population around 1,000).

Chris Stringer, a researcher in human evolution at London’s Natural History Museum, disagreed with the findings. He said that lack of genetic diversity was not necessarily a factor in the disappearance of the Neanderthals around 40,000 years ago. According to him, other Neanderthal sites, such as Vindija, and  Croatia, that were active at the same time as the group was studied, suggest larger and more diverse populations.

According to the study authors, the family group that they discovered might not reflect the social life of the entire Neanderthal population. Future research should include the genetic sequencing and analysis of additional Neanderthal communities and individuals.

First family snapshot

It is possible that the inhabitants of both caves interacted, trekking to the same rock sources to make their stone tools. This supports the genetic link between them. The Neanderthals hunted horses, bison, ibex,x, and other animals that passed through the valleys of the caves.

Okladnikov and Chagyrskaya are both within 100 km (62 miles) of Denisova Cave, one of the most important places in the study of human evolution. This site was occupied at one time by Neanderthals, early modern humans, and Denisovans. The latter was an extinct type of extinct human, discovered using DNA from a single pinkie.

Svante Paabo was another coauthor of the Chagyrskaya research. He sequenced the first Neanderthal DNA in 2010 and received the Nobel Prize. Genome-wide data have been retrieved from 18 Neanderthals since the initial sequencing. Lara Cassidy (assistant professor in Trinity College Dublin’s Department of Genetics) said that the new study adds 13 more — a significant technical achievement.

She said that “this work is particularly remarkable because the sequenced individuals were not scattered across the vast expanses of Neanderthal existence but are concentrated at one point in time, space, thus providing the first snapshot to a family group.” In a commentary published with the study.

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