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Neanderthal DNA Provides a Glimpse Into Ancient Family Life

An artistic depiction of a Neanderthal father and his daughter.
A Neanderthal father and his daughter. Credit: Tom Bjorklund.
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A new study has comprehensively analyzed DNA sequences from ancient Neanderthals occupying a remote region of southern Siberia. The findings offer a rare insight into Neanderthal family life.

What makes us human?

In 2010, the first draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome was published, a feat that would earn Professor Svante Pääbo the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. The research has been credited with furthering our understanding of what makes us “human”.

Since 2010, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA) have continued to sequence Neanderthal genomes. Their studies have offered insights into how inherited Neanderthal genes may increase disease susceptibility, or offer disease protection, among other learnings. 

The latest publication from the institute has focused on what Neanderthal genomes can teach us about the structure of these ancient communities. The researchers, led by Dr. Laurits Skov, a postdoctoral researcher at MPI-EVA, focused on DNA samples obtained from 17 Neanderthal remains excavated from two caves in southern Siberia: Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov. Their work is the largest Neanderthal sequencing study conducted to date and is published in Nature.

An insight into Neanderthal family life

The remains were from 13 Neanderthals – 6 females and 7 males, of which 5 were children and young adolescents, and 8 were adults. When analyzing the Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), the team discovered that samples from the Chagyrskaya contained heteroplasmies, which were shared across the individuals.

What is heteroplasmy?

Mitochondria have their own genome, which is separate from the nuclear genome. mtDNA is inherited via the maternal line. Heteroplasmy is defined as the existence of two or more mtDNA variants within the same cell. Heteroplasmies are short-lived mutations – i.e., they only persist for a small number of generations.

This implies that the Neanderthals occupying this location most likely lived and died around the same time. “For the first time, to our knowledge, we document familial relationships between Neanderthals, including a father-and-daughter pair,” the researchers write in the publication.

“The fact that they were living at the same time is very exciting. 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,” said Skov.

Females migrated across communities

Skov and colleagues also discovered low levels of genetic diversity within the community – much lower than is expected for ancient or modern-day humans. The Neanderthals appear to have been a small group of relatives, perhaps comprising 10–20 members. When assessing the genetic diversity of the Y chromosome from the sample, the team discovered that the mtDNA diversity was much higher. This, they say, helps to answer a key question about Neanderthal life: did males or females move between communities? The mtDNA genetic variation implies it was females.

“Based on the shorter average coalescent time for the Y chromosomes than for the mtDNA and shared mtDNA variants between Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov individuals, we suggest that these small Neanderthal communities were predominantly linked by female migration,” Skov and team write.

“Our study provides a concrete picture of what a Neanderthal community may have looked like,” says Dr. Benjamin Peter, group leader at MPI-EVA and last author of the study. “It makes Neanderthals seem much more human to me.”

Reference: Skov L, Peyrégne S, Popli D, et al. Genetic insights into the social organization of Neanderthals. Nature. 2022;610(7932):519-525. doi:10.1038/s41586-022-05283-y.

This article is a rework of a press release issued by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.