50,000-year-old DNA reveals the first-ever look at a Neanderthal family

A new genetic analysis of 50,000-year-old Neanderthal remains found in a Siberian cave reveals that these humans traveled in small, family-oriented groups.

Nestle in a cave in the snowy Altai Mountains of Siberia, fragmented bones and teeth have revealed the first-ever glimpse of a Neanderthal family. More than 50,000 years ago, a group of adults and kids died while sheltering at their hunting camp, and the finding provides archaeologists and geneticists with the most complete set of Neanderthal genomes to date.

50,000-year-old DNA reveals the first-ever look at a Neanderthal family

About 60 miles (100 kilometers) west of Denisova Cave, which produced evidence of an extinct species of hominin called the Denisovans just over a decade ago, lies Chagyrskaya Cave, where in 2019 excavators found(opens in new tab) some 90,000 stone artifacts, bone tools, animal and plant remains, and 74 Neanderthal fossils. The organic remains of Chagyrskaya Cave, which was presumed to be a short-term bison hunting camp, were radiocarbon-dated to between 51,000 and 59,000 years old. Pollen and animal remains show that the climate was quite cold in the short time Neanderthals occupied Chagyrskaya.

A new analysis published Oct. 19 in the journal Nature(opens in new tab) delves further into the genetic makeup of the Neanderthals at Chagyrskaya and neighboring Okladnikov Cave. The study yielded an astounding 13 genomes, nearly doubling the number of complete Neanderthal genome sequences in existence. While previous work estimated the size of Neanderthal communities based on footprints and site-use patterns, the new genomic analysis directly tested the hypothesis that Neanderthals lived in biologically related groups of 20 or fewer individuals.

Genetic data from 11 Neanderthals found at Chagyrskaya Cave gave the researchers the first incontrovertible evidence of Neanderthal familial relationships, according to the paper. The DNA from two individuals — an adult male and an adolescent female — suggested a “first-degree relationship,” meaning it was possible for them to be mother and son, brother and sister, or father and daughter.

But their nonmatching mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is generally passed on from mother to child, ruled out the first two pairings, leaving researchers face-to-face with a father and his teenage daughter. The father also shared mtDNA with two other males, who were likely close maternal relatives; “for example, they could have shared a grandmother,” the authors suggeste.

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