By Sheroog Kubur, November 17 2022—
While the idea of forming communities seems very human, recent developments show that community-building may be a feature of Neanderthal life as well. A group of closely-related Neanderthals was discovered in the Chagyrskaya cave in Serbia according to findings published in Nature. The group contained 11 Neanderthals total, including a father, daughter and two other distant relatives, as well as seven others who were likely from another nearby clan. This is the first time researchers have been able to find Neanderthals with such close relations and gives insight into what their social dynamics could have been.
“It makes you wonder what the familial relationship between these individuals were and how they were interacting with each other,” said Lauritis Skov, a University of California researcher. “It is a little glimpse into a Neanderthal family.”
The study began in 2007 by a group of Russian paleoanthropologists with the Russian Academy of Sciences. This cave has been a looking glass into Neandrathal life, offering bone and teeth fragments, butchered bison bones and over 90,000 stone tools.
It involved collecting samples from Neanderthal DNA by drilling holes into teeth and bone fragments found in the cave. Two samples shared half their DNA, cementing them as having either a father-daughter or sibling relationship. They were able to discern the male and female as a father and daughter thanks to mitochondrial DNA — the variation between the two allowed the researchers to narrow the relationship down to a father-daughter one.
“That is really exciting because what we have is a community, and we can start to understand a bit about how these communities worked,” said Lara Cassidy, a Trinity College Dublin geneticist who was not involved in the study.
Neanderthals are distant relatives of humans that lived 430,000 to 40,000 years ago in Eurasia. They are a group of highly-mobile hunter-gatherers, making it difficult to pinpoint closely related clans. This marks the first time that close relatives have been sequenced together, giving insight into their social structure. They were found to be living in clans of 10-30 and it is posited that females often moved from clan to clan, as supported by 12 mitochondrial DNA samples collected from a cave in Spain, all of which were female.
“We estimate that between 60 to 100 per cent of women in any community actually come from other communities,” said Skov.
This discovery also highlights that this clan was likely to have all died together, most probably from starvation due to a lack of sufficient bison gathered. The weather conditions were harsh and competition for resources against animals of the day was fierce — it’s likely that not gathering enough resources for the season would have been detrimental.
“Life back then was rough, they survived by hunting bison,” Skov said. “You can imagine if, in one year, they don’t manage to hunt and catch all they need — something sad like that.”
It has also been noted that this social arrangement may not have been universal, but specific to eastern clans by Cassidy. It is possible that females move from clan to clan in this region, but it could also be unique to the clan. Regardless, this discovery remains a substantial step in understanding how they may have lived.