For the first time, researchers have identified a Neanderthal family: a father and his teenage daughter, as well as several others who were close relatives. They lived in Siberian caves around 54,000 years ago. A team of scientists, which included Svante Pääbo, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, published the findings in Nature this week.
The researchers extracted ancient DNA from bones and teeth that once belonged to 11 Neanderthals living together at the Chagyrskaya Cave, as well as 2 others from a second cave nearby. Of the 13, eight were adults and five were children. Alongside these remains, the team also found stone tools and animal bones.
The researchers say that the individuals found at Chagyrskaya likely lived at the same time—an unusual finding at sites this old, where discoveries often span vast timelines.
“The fact that they were living at the same time is very exciting. This means that they likely came from the same social community,” says study coauthor Laurits Skov, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, in a statement. “So, for the first time, we can use genetics to study the social organization of a Neandertal community.”
Neanderthals inhabited what is now Europe and Asia for more than 350,000 years until they disappeared, somewhat suddenly, around 40,000 years ago. This occurred at around the same time as the emergence of Homo sapiens in Europe.
Studying Neanderthals is like “putting together a puzzle where we have many, many missing pieces,” John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin not involved in the study, tells the Associated Press’ Maddie Burakoff. And now, the new study means “somebody’s dumped a bunch more pieces on the table.”
The DNA found at the site gives researchers new insights into how Neanderthals lived: namely, who was migrating and how communities interacted with each other. The researchers found very little genetic diversity within the clan, suggesting that Neanderthals in this area lived in small groups of 10 or 20. “This is much lower than those recorded for any ancient or present-day human community, and is more similar to the group sizes of endangered species at the verge of extinction,” writes the team.
Looking more closely, the scientists were able to examine mitochondrial DNA, which mothers pass down to their children, and compare it to Y chromosomes, which is passed down by fathers. They found more genetic diversity in the mitochondrial DNA, suggesting that women may have moved from community to community more than the men, perhaps when they chose a mate.
These Neanderthals lived in small communities in caves, traveling through the river valleys to hunt—bison, horses, ibex—and using stone to create tools, according to the researchers. The tools found in both caves studied are made with the same raw materials, meaning the communities likely interacted with each other.
“Our study provides a concrete picture of what a Neanderthal community may have looked like”, says Benjamin Peter, a co-author of the study, in the statement. “It makes Neanderthals seem much more human to me.”