Ancient DNA gives rare insight into Neanderthal family ties

NEW YORK (AP) — A new study suggests that Neanderthals formed small, tight-knit communities where women may have traveled to move in with their companions.

The research used genetic research to offer 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 were able to extract DNA from tiny bone fragments found in two Russian caves. In their study, published Wednesday in the journal Naturethey used the genetic data to map the relationships between 13 different Neanderthals and get clues about their way of life.

“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 their own stories,” said study author Bence Viola, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto. “Understanding how they relate to each other really makes them a lot more human.”

Our ancient cousins, the Neanderthals, lived across Europe and Asia for hundreds of thousands of years. They died out around 40,000 years ago, shortly after our species, Homo sapiens, arrived in Europe from Africa.

Only recently have scientists been able to dig into the DNA of these early humans. New Nobel Laureate Svante Paabo – who is one of the authors of this latest study – published the first draft of a Neanderthal genome just 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 it’s rare to find the bones of multiple Neanderthals from the same time and place, he said — which is why these cave finds were so special.

“If there was a chance of finding a Neanderthal community, this would be it,” Skov said.

The caves, located in remote foothills above a river valley, have been a rich source of materials ranging from stone tools to fossil fragments, Viola said. With their privileged view of migrating herds in the valley below, researchers believe the caves could have served as a short-term hunting stop for Neanderthals.

Archaeologists digging the caves have found remains of at least a dozen different Neanderthals, Viola said. These remains usually come in small 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 parents among the group. In addition to father and daughter, there were a pair of other relatives – perhaps a boy and his aunt, or a few cousins.

Overall, the analysis revealed that all members of the group had a lot of DNA in common. This suggests that at least in this region, Neanderthals lived in very small communities of 10 to 20 individuals, the authors concluded.

But not everyone in those groups stayed put, the study found.

The researchers looked at other genetic clues from mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from the mother’s side, and the Y chromosome, which is passed down from the father’s side.

The female side showed more genetic differences than the male side — meaning the females may have moved around more, Skov said. It is possible that when a Neanderthal woman finds a mate, she leaves home to live with her family.

University of Wisconsin anthropologist John Hawks, who was not involved in the study, said the research was an exciting application of ancient DNA evidence, although many questions remain about social structures and Neanderthal lifestyles.

Understanding how early humans lived is like “putting together a puzzle where we have many, many missing pieces,” Hawks said. But this study means “someone threw a bunch of other pieces on the table.”


The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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