Thought to be our closest extinct human relatives, the Neanderthals called Europe and Asia home for hundreds of thousands of years. They died out around 40,000 years ago, following the arrival of Homo sapiens. Genome studies have primarily focused on the Neanderthals' population history, but researchers have recently begun gaining insights into their family and social structure. New studies suggest Neanderthals lived in small groups, with females traveling between communities more frequently than males.
In a recent study, DNA was extracted from small bone fragments found in Chagyrskaya Cave in southern Siberia, along with more from a nearby cave. For the first time, researchers identified a set of Neanderthals who were closely related: a father and his adolescent daughter who lived there over 50,000 years ago. DNA from two more distant relatives, along with seven other individuals, was also found in the same cave. Overall, the individuals in the group had a lot of DNA in common, leading researchers to conclude that Neanderthals lived in small communities. In total, 17 DNA samples were collected – the biggest collection of Neanderthal genomes ever discovered. This discovery is especially unique because of the rarity of finding the remains of multiple Neanderthals who inhabited the same place simultaneously.
And there's plenty more to learn – only one-third of the remains found at Chagyrskaya Cave have been excavated, and of the remains already discovered, less than a quarter have been analyzed. Researchers are optimistic that the Chagyrskaya family tree will grow and that future studies will provide a more complete picture of Neanderthal communities.
Spilling the secrets of Neanderthal DNA:
- Svante Pääbo, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, was the first to publish a draft of a Neanderthal genome over a decade ago. He contributed to the recent findings, which appeared in an October 2022 edition of the journal Nature .
- Tools found at a nearby cave were identical to those found at Chagyrskaya and were made of the same material, providing compelling evidence that the two Neanderthal communities interacted.
- The researchers discovered more genetic diversity in the mitochondrial DNA (passed down on the mother’s side), suggesting that female Neanderthals traveled from different communities more frequently than males, possibly when they chose a mate.
- Chagyrskaya Cave, which is full of horse and bison remains, may have served as a base for Neanderthals to undertake hunting trips.