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There is so much about the past that we do not know, but every day, we learn more. Shining lights on dark places where no modern human has been. Many of us have heard of Neanderthals, and I am sure that many of us still have a grave misunderstanding of these humanoids. Neanderthals were not the brutish imbeciles as they are so often portrayed in popular culture, but intelligent survivors who were on this planet far longer than we have. While it is true they died out as a morphological species; their DNA lives on in us, around 2-4% of all non-Africans. Then, of course, there is the mysterious group of people we know nearly nothing about, the Denisovans. Still, they do not come into this story, at least not in the current research.
Today we will be talking about the genetic evidence that was collected from 17 different individuals found within two other caves just 100km from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov Caves have been rich archaeological sites over the past 14 years. But today, published in Nature by Lauris Skov et al., we have the first genetic evidence of a Neanderthal family. This extraordinary evidence will lead to many insights into how Neanderthals lived, gathered socially, spread out from their localities, and so much more. So let’s dig in! (Pun intended).
So what was found? Between the Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov Caves, 17 individuals were found, seven men, six women, and five children. All of them, in some way or another related to each other. Either biologically or socially. This is astonishing as this is the first time we have seen so many Neanderthals together, at the same time, living in the same place. We can tell from the remains that they lived and died around the same time, proving they were all together. Now we know they were related because of something called Heteroplasmy, which is “Having two or more mitochondrial DNA sources within a person, cell, or mitochondrion.” So what this means is that we can tell who is someone’s mother or father. It is about telling who is related to whom. And while, of course, not everyone was related to everyone else, we could also tell how groups of Neanderthals migrated with each other.
The transfer of mitochondrial DNA shows that in Neanderthal groups, at least this one, which seemed to be more European cultured, vs. Eastern Neanderthals despite their location, is that females are the ones who travel between groups. Knowing this is such an essential piece of information that we could never have known for sure. But now we do. Another thing that we could tell from the DNA is that this population, which was around 54,000 years ago (late for Neanderthals who went extinct about 40-45kya), was that we could see a lack of diversity in the DNA and the genome. Meaning that they were indeed on the brink of extinction already at this time and location. Knowing their end was near, we can see this clearly in the DNA. This gives us insights into what happened to the Neanderthals and why only some of their DNA exists in us today, rather than them walking the Earth themselves. This an intrepid question that only more research will uncover. With the arrival of modern humans in France already by 55kya, we know that they coexisted for tens of thousands of years; could our interactions have led to their end? We may never know, but it is fun to speculate. But one myth I will shoot down right now, we did not go to war with the Neanderthals; there is no evidence of it or violence of that type for many thousand years.
This new paper has uncovered a great deal for us about the lives of Neanderthals, whom they lived with, how they integrated with different groups, and possibly why their end came within the next ten thousand years. The Neanderthals will remain a massive enigma among us. We will always be drawn to the curiosity of who they were, our ancestral cousins that no longer walk the Earth. But each day, we learn more and more to make the picture more complete. Stay tuned for the following updates out of the world of paleoanthropology!
Check out this interview I did with the author of “Kindred” Dr. Rebecca Wragg Sykes where we talk all about the daily lives of Neanderthals!