The social organization of Neanderthals is unclear. New research suggests that, at least in Siberia, Neanderthals lived in groups of 10 to 20—similar to today’s endangered mountain gorillas.
The research was carried out by a global team of scientists, including Swedish geneticist Svante Paabo, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine this month for mapping our genetic link to Neanderthals.
Nobel Prize awarded to Swedish scientist who deciphered Neanderthal genome
Unlike many archaeological sites that contain fossils accumulated over a long period of time, genetic studies of 11 Neanderthals found in the Chagirskaya caves in the Altai Mountains near Russia’s borders with Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China have shown that they Many of them are close relatives, suggesting they all lived at the same time.
“Chagyrskaya Cave is basically a moment 54,000 years ago when this community lived and died in this cave,” said Richard G. Roberts) in an interview.
“In most archaeological sites, things pile up slowly and tend to be chewed up by hyenas or something like that,” he said. “You don’t really find sites full of material. It is filled with bones, Neanderthal bones, animal bones and artifacts. It was an instant, literally freezing time. “
Scientists used DNA extracted from fossils found in the Chagilskaya cave and two other Neanderthals found in nearby caves to map the relationships between individuals and look for clues about how they lived.
Roberts said the Chagilskaya Caves sit high on a hillside overlooking a floodplain where herds of bison and other animals may have graze. Researchers found stone tools and bison bones in caves next to the ruins.
Genetic data obtained from tooth and bone fragments showed the individuals included a father and his daughter, as well as a pair of second-degree relatives, who may have been aunts or uncles, nieces or nephews, Roberts said. The father’s mitochondrial DNA — a set of genes passed from mother to child — was also similar to the other two males in the cave, suggesting they may have shared a maternal ancestor, he said.
“They’re so closely related, it’s like a clan really lives in this cave,” he said. “The idea that they could be passed on from generation to generation seems unlikely. I think they all probably died very close. Maybe it was just a terrible storm. After all, they were in Siberia.”
The study also showed that the genetic diversity of the Y chromosome (inherited only through the male line) is much lower than the genetic diversity of mitochondrial DNA in individuals, which the authors say suggests that Neanderthal females were more likely than females to migrate. male. This pattern can also be seen in many human societies where women marry their husband’s family and move away before having children.
Previous research by Swedish geneticist Paabo has shown that Neanderthals mingled with prehistoric humans after migrating out of Africa, and traces of these interactions are present in the genomes of many people today. During the pandemic, he found that genetic risk factors associated with severe cases of covid-19 were passed down from Neanderthals, carried by about half of people in South Asia and about one in six people in Europe.
The authors say the sample size of the latest study is small and may not be representative of Neanderthal social life as a whole.
“If we can replicate [the study] There are a few other places where we can really understand how Neanderthals lived and maybe explain why they went extinct and we didn’t,” said Australian academic Roberts. “We are so alike so why are we the only people left on earth?“