A family of Neanderthals can be seen for the first time thanks to 50,000-year-old DNA.

These 50,000-year-old Neanderthal fossils were discovered in a Siberian cave, and a recent genetic analysis of them has shown that they travelled in tiny, family-oriented groups.

Fragmented bones and teeth found in a cave in the frigid Altai Mountains of Siberia have provided the first-ever look at a Neanderthal family. The discovery gives archaeologists and geneticists the most complete set of Neanderthal genomes to date. More than 50,000 years ago, a group of adults and children perished while taking refuge at their hunting camp.

In 2019, archaeologists discovered(opens in new tab) about 90,000 stone artefacts, bone tools, animal and plant remains, and 74 Neanderthal fossils in Chagyrskaya Cave, which is located about 60 miles (100 kilometres) west of Denisova Cave, which just over a decade ago yielded evidence of an extinct species of hominin known as the Denisovans. Radiocarbon dating placed the organic remains of Chagyrskaya Cave, which was thought to be a transient bison hunting camp, between 51,000 and 59,000 years old. In the brief time that Neanderthals lived in Chagyrskaya, the environment was exceedingly cold, as evidenced by pollen and animal remains.

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The genetic makeup of the Neanderthals at Chagyrskaya and the nearby Okladnikov Cave is explored further in a new study that was released on October 19 in the journal Nature(opens in new tab). Amazingly, the research produced 13 genomes, which is almost twice as many as there are complete Neanderthal genome sequences. The new genetic analysis explicitly tested the idea that Neanderthals lived in biologically related groups of 20 or fewer individuals, contrary to earlier research that calculated the size of Neanderthal communities based on footprints and site-use patterns.

The researchers’ first conclusive proof of Neanderthal familial links came from genetic information from 11 Neanderthals discovered at Chagyrskaya Cave, according to the article. The DNA of two people, an adult male and a teenage girl, indicated a “first-degree link,” which may have resulted in them being mother and son, brother and sister, or father and daughter.

The first two pairings were ruled out by their mismatched mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is typically passed from mother to kid. This left researchers with a father and his adolescent daughter. Two more boys who were most likely close maternal relatives of the father also shared mtDNA with him; “for example, they could have shared a grandmother,” the scientists speculated.

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Despite the fact that they were probably present at the same time, there is no proof that these wandering Neanderthals interacted with the adjacent Denisovans. The Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov individuals “all appear equally related to European Neanderthals and were part of the same Neanderthal population,” according to the researchers’ estimates, and the Denisovans and Chagyrskaya Neandertals “shared a common ancestor perhaps 30,000 years before the Chagyrskaya Neandertals lived.”

The researchers also “concluded that the local community size of the Chagyrskaya Neanderthals was modest” due to the high degree of similarity in these Neanderthals’ genomic segments. The best case study “assumed a community size of 20 individuals,” with female migration being “a major factor in the social organisation of the Chagyrskaya Neanderthal community,” according to the study’s authors. This was done by fitting models to the mtDNA and Y-DNA, the latter of which is passed from fathers to their sons. In essence, while many females left their tribes to join others, some women stayed with the society they were born into. However, because the Chagyrskaya group would have been an exceptional, outlier case, the researchers are unsure if this group size could be generalised outside the Altai region.

These Neanderthals may have perished because of their isolation. Laurits Skov, a paleogeneticist and the study’s lead author, speculated that this group may have perished from starvation after a disappointing bison hunt in The New York Times(opens in new tab), while Richard Roberts, a geochronologist and co-author, suggested that the group may have perished from exposure to the elements “Perhaps it was just a terrible storm. After all, they are in Siberia.”

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