The genomes of a Neanderthal father and daughter, together with their relatives in a 100-year-period timespan, helped reveal the diversity among these prehistoric family setups.

Researchers have examined the new set of genomes, almost twice the number of previously known genomes for the species. A news article from the Science journal shares that some 49,000 years ago, a family of Neanderthals settled in a cave high atop the Altai Mountains in Siberia. The strategic location, which overlooked a river valley where various animals like bison, wild horses, red deers grazed, became a home for this father and daughter pair, including 12 of their kin who have also used the cave as shelter over the years.

Additionally, the new genomes offer objective clues to the social structure of Neanderthals. According to geneticist Laurits Skov from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Skov presented their work to an online conference at the International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology (ISBA) at the start of June 2021.

Homo Neanderthalensis Adult Male Reconstruction
(Photo: John Gurche, Chip Clark via Wikimedia Commons)
Homo neanderthalensis adult male. Reconstruction based on Shanidar 1 by John Gurche for the Human Origins Program, NMNH. Date: 225,000 to 28,000 years.

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A Behavior Similar to Men in Modern Societies

Among the recent discoveries in the Altai Mountains suggests that Neanderthal males stayed in with their families even as adults, a trait similar to males in modern societies. 

"It's really remarkable that they managed to get genomes from seven males at one site," said Cosimo Posth, a paleogeneticist from Tübingen University in Germany, in the Science magazine release. He also agrees with Skov's assessment of Neanderthal societies made up of small groups of closely related males.

Prior to this study, geneticists studied and conducted genome sequencing of 19 Neanderthals, using DNA samples mostly from females who are only distantly related and were scattered across different locations in Europe and Asia. Furthermore, these samples are from different points in time, from anywhere between 400,000 to 50,000 years ago. A complete genome sequencing effort found DNA signatures present in today's Europeans and Asians, as reported by the US National Human Genome Research Institute.

Skov worked together with paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo and computational biologist Benjamin Peter, also from Max Planck, to extract DNA samples from teeth, jawbone, and other bone fragments. These parts were recovered at archaeological digs led by the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk, done on caves at Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov.

Finding Clues to the Neanderthal Society

Dating the sediments around the teeth and bones suggest that these Neanderthals lived from 59,000 to 49,000 years ago. Furthermore, the site where these samples were located was close to the famous Denisova Cave, which lent its name to another group of ancient humans, the Denisovans.

Additionally, several of the males from the Chagyrskaya site were found to have identical nuclear DNA sections from the same recent ancestor, similar to the only three male Neanderthal genomes available.

Additionally, the mitochondrial DNA of both males and females was found to be diverse. This suggests that more female ancestors contributed to the Neanderthal gene pool compared to the males. According to Qiaomei Fu, a paleogeneticist from the Chinese Academy of Science who also attended the recent ISBA conference, this may suggest that either fewer men contributed to the population, or women just moved a lot more between groups.


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