Ancient DNA unveils Siberian Neandertals’ small-scale social lives

DNA from a group of Neanderthals who lived together and a few others who lived not far away has provided the best genetic glimpse into the social worlds of these ancient hominids yet.

As early as 59,000 years ago, Neandertal communities in a mountainous part of Central Asia consisted of: small groups of close relatives and adult female newcomers

researchers report October 19 in Nature.

That social scenario comes courtesy of DNA extracted from the teeth and bones of 13 Neanderthals found in two caves in the foothills of the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia. Estimates of the general genetic similarity between these Stone Age humans indicate that they formed communities of about 20 individuals, with females often migrating from their homegroups to those of their mates, says evolutionary geneticist Laurits Skov of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and colleagues.

It is not known whether the small-scale lifestyle of Altai Neanderthals was unusual, perhaps because they lived in a sparsely populated area, or reflected Neanderthal practices elsewhere in Asia and Europe. Large numbers of Neanderthals in Central Europe transformed a forest into grassland around 125,000 years ago, suggesting they could scale up communities when needed (SN: 15/12/21

).

Skov’s group studied the DNA of 11 Neanderthals from Chagyrskaya Cave and two Neanderthals from Okladnikov Cave (SN: 1/27/20). The Chagyrskaya individuals included a father and his teenage daughter, as well as an adult woman and an 8- to 12-year-old boy, who may have been her cousin or grandson.

In the Chagyrskaya group, mitochondrial DNA, usually inherited from the mother, showed greater diversity than DNA from the Y chromosome, which is inherited only by males. The improved mitochondrial DNA variety suggests that adult females often moved into that community while the males stayed put, the researchers suspect.

Jacky

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