In a cave located in Siberia, Russia, there once lived a tight-knit community of Neanderthals, the oldest known family group, and the genetic data researchers have discovered help us better understand our ancestors and the very fabric of their life.
“The fact that they were living at the same time is very exciting,” says study coauthor Laurits Skov, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “This means that they likely came from the same social community. So, for the first time, we can use genetics to study the social organization of a Neanderthal community.”
Some 54,000 years ago, a community of 20 people, including a father and his teenage daughter, a young male – either a cousin or a nephew – and an adult female second-degree relative who could have been an aunt or a grandmother, lived in the Chagyrskaya Cave in the foothills of the Altai mountains. The study of extracted ancient DNA from 17 bones and teeth belonging to seven males and six females (eight adults and five children) revealed many genetic secrets, including that the members of the community lived and died around the same time. Two male individuals shared an ancestor that lived 450 years before they did. The female individuals’ ancestors date back 4,350 years. The group had a very low genetic diversity but it isn’t a significant factor in the extinction of Neanderthals some 40,000 years ago.