DNA of 13 Neanderthals reveals ‘exciting’ snapshot of ancient community

The first snapshot of a Neanderthal community has been pieced together by scientists who examined ancient DNA from bone and tooth fragments found in caves in southern Siberia.

Researchers analyzed the DNA of 13 Neanderthal men, women, and children and found a web of interconnected relationships, including a father and his teenage daughter, another male related to the father, and two second-degree relatives, possibly a aunt and nephew.

All Neanderthals were highly inbred, a consequence researchers say of the small Neanderthal population size, with communities scattered over great distances and numbering only around 10 to 30 individuals.

Laurits Skov, first author of the study at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, said the fact that Neanderthals lived at the same time was “very exciting” and implied they belonged to one community social.

Neanderthal remains have been recovered from numerous caves in western Eurasia – a territory occupied by thick-browed humans from around 430,000 years ago until their extinction 40,000 years ago. It was previously impossible to tell whether the Neanderthals found at particular sites belonged to communities or not.

“Neanderthal remains in general, and remains with preserved DNA in particular, are extremely rare,” said Benjamin Peter, lead author of the study in Leipzig. “We tend to get single individuals from sites that are often thousands of miles and tens of thousands of years apart.”

In the latest work, researchers including Svante Pääbo, who won this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine for his groundbreaking studies of ancient genomes, examined the DNA of Neanderthal remains found in and near Chagyrskaya Cave. from Okladnikov Cave in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia.

Neanderthals sheltered in caves around 54,000 years ago, seeking shelter to feast on the ibex, horse and bison they hunted as the animals migrated along the river valleys overlooked by the caves. Beyond Neanderthal and animal bones, tens of thousands of stone tools have also been found.

Writing in the journal Nature, the scientists describe how ancient DNA points to Neanderthals living at the same time, with some being members of the same family.

Further analysis revealed greater genetic diversity in Neanderthal mitochondria – the tiny battery-like structures found inside cells that are only passed down through the maternal line – than in their Y chromosomes, which are passed down from father to son. The most likely explanation, researchers say, is that Neanderthal women left their home communities to live with male partners. Whether force was involved, however, is not a question that DNA can answer. “I personally don’t think there’s particularly strong evidence that Neanderthals were very different from early modern humans who lived around the same time,” Peter said.

“We find that the community we’re studying was probably very small, maybe 10-20 individuals, and the larger Neanderthal populations in the Altai Mountains were quite sparse,” Peter said. “Nevertheless, they managed to persevere in a harsh environment for hundreds of thousands of years, which I think deserves great respect.”

Dr Lara Cassidy, assistant professor of genetics at Trinity College Dublin, called the study a “milestone” as the “first genomic snapshot of a Neanderthal community”.

“Understanding how their societies were organized is important for many reasons,” Cassidy said. “It humanizes these people and gives a rich context to their lives. But also, ultimately, if we have more studies like this, it may also reveal unique aspects of social organization of our own. A wise man the ancestors. This is crucial to understanding why we are here today and why Neanderthals are not.

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